Friday, June 21, 2019

Understanding Evolution - Transitional Forms

This entry is part of a collection on Understanding Evolution. For other entries in this collection, follow that link.

This particular entry is adapted from a Quora question. Some of the topics here may seem familiar if you've read some of my other entries on evolution, but they help to make this a standalone essay that makes sense on its own if you haven't read those other entries.


There's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to transitional forms. These can be transitional fossils, but also living creatures that have preserved an ancestral condition. There's even value in looking at modern animals that may not be closely related to animals from a specific transition you're interested in, but which live a similar lifestyle. I'll show a few of my favorites in this entry, but there are many, many more than what I've included.


Snail Eyes - An Example to Explain Concepts

I'll start off with snail eyes as an example case to explain a few concepts. Here are various eyes from living snails.

Snail Eyes
ABOVE: Various eyes from living snails
SOURCE: StephenJoayGould.org - futuyma_eye.gif)

First, you can see how these eyes are all of varying complexity (and if you wanted to look to other lineages like starfish, you could find even more primitive eyes that are merely light sensitive spots). The eye labeled 1 in the diagram (which I'll refer to as type 1 for convenience) is little more than a cup, but it at least allows its owners to determine the direction of a light source. Going through the other eyes shown, you can see the eyes become increasingly more complex, until the type 6 'camera' eye, which even has a lens. So, as evidenced by the fact that living animals use these eyes, it's clear that all of the 'intermediate' forms are still functional and useful to their owners.

To explain how eyes in living animals can represent transitional forms, here's a hypothetical, and overly simple, family tree of how this might have happened (you can do searches for snail phylogenetic trees to find some real ones).

Hypothetical Snail Family Tree
ABOVE: Hypothetical Overly-Simple Snail Family Tree
SOURCES: David Peters Studios and StephenJayGould.org, with some editing on my part

Imagine that the colors in the family tree represent snails with a certain type of eye. Black is the most primitive type 1 cup eye. Blue is the type 2 eye. Red is the type 3 eye. And on through green, magenta, and cyan. Note how once a lineage evolves a new innovation to the eye, it's the only lineage with that innovation. For example, once the type 2 eye evolved in a single species of snail, only descendants of that species had type 2 eyes, because they were the only ones that could inherit it. It couldn't share that trait with its cousins. But, all of the snails with the original type 1 cup type eyes didn't all of a sudden all go extinct just because their cousins evolved a new type of eye. So, the snails with the type 1 eyes continued to evolve and diversify in their own lineages. But, their eyes remained similar to the ancestral condition.

That's why a primitive feature in a living animal can still be considered something of a transitional form. The lineage that led to that existing animal simply wasn't a part of the lineage that evolved the newer version of the feature, so it still has the 'original' version.

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Fossil Transitions

Fish to Land Animals

Tetrapod Limb Development
ABOVE: Evolution of tetrapods from lobe finned fish
SOURCE: Berkeley - The origin of tetrapods

Let's get a little more explanation out of the way with this example. Even though all those animals are known from fossils, it's very unlikely that any of them are actual direct ancestors of any of the others. Fossilization is a very rare event to begin with. And finding fossils that have been exposed through erosion, but before the erosion can carry on to destroy the fossils, is even more rare. In fact, there are plenty of living species, so that we know for a fact that they exist, that we've never found fossils of. So, the fossil record is spotty.

But, these transitional fossils are still similar to the actual direct ancestors. Consider the discussion of the snail family tree up above, and how certain primitive traits persist in some lineages. If a fossil is of an animal close to the actual direct ancestor, it's still going to have retained most of the ancestral traits.

Or, think of it in more human terms. Your aunts and uncles aren't your direct ancestors, but they're more similar to your parents than non-relatives. I know that I can definitely see the family resemblance between my parents and their siblings, on both sides. Even if a fossil is found of a species that isn't a direct ancestor, the fossil will be more similar to the ancestor than other, more distantly related animals would be.

So, with the long explanations out of the way, let's look at some more examples.


Horses

Horse Evolution
ABOVE: A somewhat simplified representation of horse evolution
SOURCE: Wikipedia

Just to be clear, that diagram is rather simplified. Horse evolution was very bushy, like that hypothetical snail family tree I showed up above. But this does show some representation animals from that transition, especially highlighting the dramatic transformation of the foot.

I did find another great image that makes the 'bushiness' a little more apparent, but it's copyrighted and clearly marked not for reuse, so you'll have to follow the link: "Evolution of the Horse"


Hoofed Mammals to Whales

Whale Evolution
ABOVE: Evolution from land based, hoofed animals to fully aquatic whales
SOURCE: Weebly

Whale evolution is such a great example, showing a transition to a completely different habitat. It also shows how evolutionary contingency forced whales to evolve features different from their ancient fish ancestors.

More Info: The evolution of whales


Turtles

Turtle Evolution
ABOVE: Evolution of turtles from non-shelled ancestors
SOURCE: How the turtle got its shell -- clues revealed by fossils

Turtles are another great example, showing the evolution of something as seemingly unlikely as a turtle's shell.


Non-Flying Dinosaurs to Birds

I'm going to show two diagrams for this one. The first shows better how birds fit into the overall dinosaur family tree, and highlights when specific features appeared. The second is a little more detailed on the skeletons, especially the arms/wings.

Bird Evogram
ABOVE: Bird 'Evogram'
SOURCE: Berkely - The origin of birds

 

Bird Evolution
ABOVE: (A) Diagram comparing a non-flying dinosaur, Ornitholestes, with Archaeopteryx and a modern pigeon, (B) Arm/wing evolution from non-flying dinosaurs to modern birds, (C) Hind leg evolution from non-flying dinosaurs to birds
SOURCE: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters


Ancestral Pinniped to Walruses

Maybe not the most dramatic transition, but I just love this one:

Walrus Evolution
ABOVE: Evolution of skulls from seal like animals to walruses
SOURCE: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters
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Living Animals with Ancestral Condition

Flying Frogs

Flying Frog Progression
ABOVE: Common Tree Frog, Green Flying Frog, and Wallace's Flying Frog
SOURCE: Screenshot from Gliding Frogs, The Green Flying Frog, and The Wallace's Flying Frog

I love this 'progression'. The common tree frog has preserved the ancestral condition, which is still common in most tree frogs, of having normally sized feet, and simply spreading out its limbs when falling to help slow down its fall. The green flying frog has evolved slightly bigger feet, so that it has a slightly better glide ratio, and can control its fall a bit better. But even that is an 'intermediate' form compared to Wallace's flying frog, which has absolutely gigantic feet, and an even better gliding ability.

More Info: Quora - If natural selection drives evolution, how did birds survive the intermediate stage before their wings could glide or fly?


Platypuses - Egg Laying, Primitive Mammary Gland

Platypus Mother and Babies
ABOVE: Baby platypuses 'suckling'
SOURCE: Imgur

While it may be a bit hard to tell from the photo, those baby platypuses aren't sucking on a teat, because female platypuses don't have teats. They have more primitive mammary glands, with multiple ducts to the skin, rather than all coming together at a teat. Baby platypuses have to lick up the milk that secretes onto the mother's skin, rather than suck it. This preserves a stage in the evolution of mammary glands, before they were quite as complex as those in modern placental mammals. (more info: Quora - How did evolution design the mechanism for breast feeding?)

And while I didn't show a picture, it's common knowledge that platypuses lay eggs. That's the ancestral condition of mammals before one of our ancestors evolved to give live birth.


Lungfish

Lungfish
ABOVE: Lungfish
SOURCE: Wikipedia

As the name implies, lungfish have lungs, and can breathe air. Having lungs is actually the ancestral condition for bony fish. It's the ray finned fish that have gone on to specialize their lungs as swim bladders. As far as us land animals, lungfish are lineage that branched off from the lobe finned fish, so they're actually more closely related to us than a goldfish.

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Similar Lifestyles in Non-Related Modern Animals

Frogfish

You actually get a video for this one:

Okay, I guess it's time for a little more explanation. The example above and the ones about to follow don't represent an intermediate form of a different transition in unrelated animals. For example, frogfish aren't particularly closely related to land animals - no more so than any other fish. Frogfish don't preserve a primitive form of walking that our ancestors developed further. Frogfish evolved their walking completely independently of our own. But what frogfish do show is that walking underwater is a perfectly viable trait for a species. It doesn't have to be foresight planning ahead for a life out of water - walking in the water is a successful strategy for living species.

More generally, these types of animals have a lifestyle that in some ways is similar to what an ancestral form in another animal might have been, demonstrating that there are indeed niches for the lifestyles of the ancestral forms.


Mudskipper

Mudskipper
ABOVE: Mudskipper
SOURCE: Wikipedia

Mudskippers shows the value in an amphibious lifestyle at the water's edge, for an animal that's still mostly 'fishy', but can get around decently on the land.


Seal

Seal
ABOVE: Seal
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

Seals show the value in a mostly aquatic lifestyle for an animal whose ancestors started off on land, and who's still very much reliant on returning to the land periodically to survive.

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If you want to learn more about any of those specific transitions,the links to the image sources are fairly informative. In a few cases, I also included additional sources. If you're interested in seeing more of these transition-type diagrams, here's another good source for those:

A New Method for Teaching Evolution Evidence

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Comparing Jesus to Another Purported Holy Man

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismIn discussing religion with Christians, there seems to be this blind spot about the vast array of different religious beliefs out there. Many seem to see religion as a dichotomy - either Christianity is true, or religion in general is false. In many of their arguments, they just don't seem to even consider other religions (Pascal's wager is an obvious example of this blind spot). It results in many of their arguments being special pleading, but since they seem to be so unaware/dismissive of other religions, I'm not sure they even realize it's special pleading. But the end result is still that the arguments aren't particularly persuasive.

So, for some context, let's consider a different purported holy man besides Jesus. This man began a ministry and attracted many followers. According to his followers, he was prophesied in scriptures, and was God in the flesh. They claim he performed many miracles, including healings, levitation (somewhat similar to Christ's walking on water), making objects appear, changing water into other drinks (very similar to turning water into wine), physically emitting brilliant light (similar to Jesus in Matthew 17:2), and other miracles less analogous to Jesus (such as being in more than one place at the same time). His followers believe he will come again (through reincarnation). People who had never met him personally had visions of him, and he purportedly continued to visit his followers in visions after his death. There are many claimed eye-witnesses to his miracles and these visions, and a written account of his life, including many of the miracles he performed.

Now, lest you think I'm referring to some ancient figure whose reputation grew legendary over generations, this man was born in 1926, and he only died in 2011. His biography was written while he was still alive, and many of the eye witness testimonies are available on the Internet (such as here). His name was Sathya Sai Baba, and he still has devoted followers.

And I chose Sai Baba rather arbitrarily, because I've just happened to learn of him recently. There are many other purported holy men I could use for comparison, such as Ram Bahadur Bamjan, believed by some to be the reincarnation of the Buddha; Sun Myung Moon, who claimed to be a messiah continuing Jesus's work and who wrote new scriptures (i.e. Exposition of the Divine Principle); Joseph Smith, a prophet who claimed to have visions of Jesus and visits from angels and who wrote his revelations into new scriptures (i.e. the Book of Mormon); Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus whose paragraph long mini biography is practically identical to Jesus's, but substituting Roman gods for the Jewish God (of course there are plenty of differences in the details); and countless others (there's also a long list of people claiming to be the second coming of Christ). And let's not forget about urban legends, such as those found on Snopes, to show how untrue stories can spread very quickly to become believed by large numbers of people.

Now, if you're like me, you probably don't believe the miraculous claims about Sai Baba or any of these other purported holy men (or the urban legends on Snopes). There are far more likely explanations to their claimed miracles than actual divine powers. But it provides context for the early Christians. All these holy men did exist. Their followers did and still do sincerely believe the miraculous stories and claims. Their scriptures have been preserved faithfully. Jesus is just one of many such holy men.

As one more bit of context, consider the religious landscape at the time Christianity was getting started. The early converts to Christianity would have been Jews or Roman pagans. Many Jewish people already believed in the God of the Old Testament and in prophecies of a coming Messiah, so the challenge in their conversion would have been convincing them that Jesus was the fulfillment of these prophecies. The Roman pagans already believed in many gods and miracles, so the challenge in converting them would have been limiting them to believing in one God. The early Christians wouldn't have been trying to win over skeptical atheists and agnostics, or people who doubted the supernatural in general. For someone who grew up believing in the labors of Hercules, it wouldn't have been too difficult to believe that someone else walked on water or turned water into wine.

It's one thing to claim to have writings that faithfully represent the beliefs of a religious sect, or even the overall life and times of a religious leader. It's quite another to claim that these writings are completely true, including all the divine claims and miracles. Jesus and Sai Baba can't both be God, so for any arguments about the divine aspects of Jesus and the New Testament to be convincing, you shouldn't be able to turn around and use similar arguments on Sai Baba and his biography, or any of these other religious leaders to prove their divinity. If an argument could be used to claim the divinity of both, then it must be a flawed or incomplete argument (unless you do think they're both God).

To put it another way, when listening to the arguments from apologists, you would do well to consider how these arguments might sound if being applied to a different holy man like Sathya Sai Baba, and whether you would still find them convincing.

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As a side note, this entry began life as an introduction to a review of Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. I'm not sure if I'll be able to bring myself to finish the book and the review, but I didn't want this intro to languish in my drafts folder, so I figured I'd adapt it into a stand alone post. Just in case I never get around to a full review, I'll say that Strobel's book isn't very convincing. The apologists he interviews engage in a lot of these special pleading type arguments. And despite Strobel's touting of his journalism credentials, the book is very biased, with practically no expert rebuttal to the apologist's claims. If you're interested, here's a pretty good review on The Secular Web:

The Rest of the Story, by Jeffery Jay Lowder

Updated 2019-04-19: Slight change to wording in introduction

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Weighing Myself Over a Whole Day

Detecto Bathroom ScaleEver since I posted an entry about the techniques I found useful to lose weight (How I Lost 40 lbs in 6 Months), there's been a project that I've wanted to do, but I just got around to doing yesterday. I weighed myself continuously over a whole day to see how my weight varied.

In that older entry, I'd mentioned that one of the techniques I found useful was weighing myself daily. I explained how I did so in the mornings in only my underwear to try for consistency, and also how you shouldn't stress too much over small fluctuations. And while I knew from experience that my weight could vary by pounds over the course of the day, I'd never taken a detailed look to see exactly what that looked like. So I finally did. (It was actually a little bit more of a hassle than I'd anticipated, so don't expect another entry like this any time soon.)

Before getting into the longer explanation, here are the results, in two graphs. The first graph includes my body weight and the full weight on the scale (i.e. with clothes throughout most of the day). The second is just my body weight, so that the graph could be 'zoomed in' a bit more. Both graphs also include the next morning, just to help show the trend.

My heaviest body weight over the course of the first day was right after lunch, at 171.6 lbs. My lightest was right before supper, at 167.6 lbs. So, over the course of that day, my body weight varied by 4 lbs. Also, my clothes weighed around 5 ½ lbs, so my biggest number on the scale was 177.1, almost 10 lbs heavier than my lightest body weight.

Weight Over a Whole Day (Includes uncorrected scale weights)
Click to embiggen
 
Body Weight Over a Whole Day
Click to embiggen

Let's get into a few more details. First, here's my schedule over that period. I was up a bit late the night before, going to bed at midnight. I woke up at 6:00, made a quick trip to purge my bladder, then did my morning workout. Once I got to work, an office job, I ate my breakfast and started drinking coffee, making periodic bathroom breaks. Pretty much every sudden drop in weight throughout the day was a bathroom break, so I won't bring those up again. I ate my lunch at 11:00. For the rest of the afternoon, I tapered off on the coffee, with a protein bar snack around 12:30. I ate supper around 6:00, then changed to work clothes to go help my daughter on some projects at her house, having a drink or two of diet soda over there. I got home and went to bed around 10:00.

I didn't eat that much yesterday, not anywhere close to what I eat on weekends or special occasions. I'm pretty sure that if I did this on a Saturday, there would be much bigger spikes at meal times.

One thing I already knew, but which I still think is interesting, is how much my body weight drops while I'm sleeping - around a pound. I'm guessing this is a combination of basal metabolic rate (inhaling oxygen, but exhaling the slightly heavier carbon dioxide), perspiration, and losing just a bit of water to evaporation while breathing.

I had no intention to strip down to my underwear every time I was going to weigh myself, so I just did some math. I weighed myself with and without clothes in the morning before heading to work, and then again when I got home to get a pair of measurements for my office clothes. Then I did the same thing before and after heading to my daughter's house to get a pair of measurements for my work clothes. So, for each outfit, I had two measurements for the difference. I averaged it for each, and subtracted that from the weight on the scale. (It turned out to be right around 5.5 lbs for both outfits.) And to be thorough, I even made sure my pocket contents were the same each time I weighed myself (cell phone, wallet, keys, pocket knife, and mini tape measure at work, empty pockets at my daughter's).

That last paragraph brings up another caveat - my scale's not perfect. If it was, it should have shown the same difference in weight in clothes before and after work, and before and after going to my daughter's. But it didn't. It was off by 0.2 lbs in the first case, and 0.3 lbs in the second. That's not huge, but it does highlight just one more source of variation when weighing yourself.

So, this project helps to show the types of variation someone can have in body weight over the course of a day, and the even bigger variation you can get in the weight on the scale depending on the clothes you're wearing at the time, or even how consistent your scale is. If you're weighing yourself as part of an effort to lose weight or to maintain your current weight, keep this in mind as a reason for consistency in when & how you weigh yourself, and as a reason to not worry about small fluctuations.

Related Entries:

Bathroom Scale Image Source: Detecto.com

Updated 2019-03-26: Made a few minor changes to wording to help things read better, but no change to any meaning.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Weight Loss Follow-Up - Keeping the Weight Off

fitnessWell, it's the start of a new year, and a lot of people are making weight loss resolutions, so I figured it was a good time to revisit a post from 2½ years ago, How I Lost 40 lbs in 6 Months. I've managed to keep the weight off (in fact, I met a new lower goal - 60 lbs lighter than my original weight), so I'm counting that as long term success. But I've also made a few adjustments, and had a few short term slips, so I figured I'd share what I've learned since then.

In that older entry, I made a short list of what I did to lose the weight, and then expanded on each of those items. Go read it for the details, especially if you haven't read it yet, but here's the short list:

  • Count Calories
  • Weigh Yourself Daily
  • Exercise
  • Optimize Nutrition
  • Take Days Off, but Don't Go Crazy
  • Find Ways to Make it as Easy as Possible
  • Set Reasonable Goals

I don't mean to imply that this is the optimal solution for everybody, but at least it worked for me, so some other people might find it useful. Anyway, let's go back through those items again with new updates since that old post.

Count Calories / Weigh Yourself Daily

I can't emphasize enough how useful those first two actions were for me. I set a calorie goal per weekday (I relax a bit on the weekends), and use the MyFitnessPal app to track exactly what I eat for the day to make sure I meet the goal. For one thing, I just didn't have a good sense of how many calories were in various foods before I started doing this (especially restaurant food). For another, logging the foods helps keep me from cheating. Certain foods that may just seem like little snacks can really add up if you're not careful. One cookie here (570 calories at Starbucks). A handful of sunflower seeds there (200 calories in 1/4 cup source). Maybe one or two beers with dinner (230 calories per each Sierra Nevada IPA). And before you know it, you've busted your calorie goal on just snacks without even eating anything filling or nutritious.

The scale also helps keep me on track. Now, don't stress over the numbers or fixate on weight entirely. After Thanksgiving, my weight on the scale went up 12 lbs. There's no conceivable way to gain 12 lbs of fat in a single day. But, the scale is still a good indicator, especially when you're on a normal routine. After weighing myself daily for a few years, I have a good sense of what my weekly pattern is like - a bit of a boost after my relaxed eating over the weekend, followed by a gradual decline to my target weight by Friday. If I relax too much over the weekends, as I did for a short time about a year ago when I also was lax about the daily weigh-ins, my weight will start to drift back up. Once I started weighing in daily again, it was a daily reminder of where I stood in relation to where I wanted to be, and I got back on track.

Now, I did alter my plan a bit as far as my long term daily calorie goals. My original plan was to ease my weekday calorie goal back up once I reached my target weight. But I've found that I prefer to stay strict during the weekdays, giving me a bit more cushion to relax on the weekends. It's a running joke in my family that I'm always hungry. This joke began before I ever even started on the diet (it's a big part of the reason I was so overweight to begin with). So I figure, if I'm going to be hungry, anyway, I might as well be hungry on 1250 calories a day as on 2000 calories a day. And it's a whole lot easier to be strict on weekdays when I'm eating at my desk at work or cooking a simple supper at the house, as opposed to weekends when we tend to meet up with friends.

Exercise

In that old entry, I mentioned that my wife and I were going to the gym a couple times per week. Well, it didn't last. The biggest reason was probably just the time - an hour at the gym plus time to change, shower, and drive all adds up to a decent chunk of the evening, especially with a few life changes that made us a whole lot busier. On top of that, my elbow gets aggravated when lifting weights, so my doctor recommended sticking to light weights at high reps. So, I switched to exercising with dumbbells at the house a couple mornings per week, and just recently adding in a leg day. It's still about 45 minutes per session, but I just roll out of bed to do it, and then go get the morning shower I was going to get, anyway, so I skip the extra time associated with the gym, and keep my evenings free.

During the spring & summer, I also try to jog and swim laps in our pool, but those are hard to find the time to keep up with. So, I try really hard not to slack off on my morning workouts.

And just to repeat something important from that previous entry - exercise is important for fitness, but unless you're a serious athlete, don't count on it to lose weight. You're probably not burning as many extra calories as you think you are. The best way to lose weight is to eat less.

Nutrition

I've stuck mostly with what I wrote in that old entry, but now concentrating mainly on getting enough protein and carbs even within my low calorie goals - 0.75 g of protein per pound I weigh, and 130 g of carbs. I haven't done any fad diets or specifically avoided any types of food (e.g. keto, Atkins, gluten-free), but just by default to get the protein and carbs without going over on calories, I've stuck mostly to lean white meats (chicken breast and pork loin), and baked or roasted foods. I also try to mix in different types of veggies for variety. And I usually have enough of a cushion to eat a ~50 calorie dessert with supper, which is just enough for a little treat.

I specifically mentioned Quest Bars and Muscle Milk in that old entry as supplements to try to hit my protein goals. And those are still good products, but they're not particularly cheap. So, I've switched to two protein supplements a bit easier on the bank account - Premier Protein Fiber Bars and Protein2o Protein Drinks. Like I wrote previously, those are mainly for snacks and as a post-workout drink. I still get the majority of my calories from 'real' food.

Just to put it out there, I recently wrote an entry on Good Sources of Potassium, back when I was starting to swim again but getting cramps. The surprising thing when I actually researched various foods, is that bananas aren't actually particularly good potassium sources. You're better off eating more vegetables, particularly zucchini and squash.

Take Days Off, but Don't Go Crazy

This is one of the areas I've found where I have to be pretty careful. Like I wrote up above, I'm always hungry, and certain foods are just packed with calories that can add up in a hurry. So, I can't just eat whatever I want for an entire weekend. I can relax a bit, and maybe pick one meal to splurge, but I still have to be at least somewhat disciplined.

Find Ways to Make it as Easy as Possible

This hasn't changed much. I still eat single serving microwave oatmeal for breakfast, microwave Lean Cuisines for lunch, and individually packaged afternoon snacks, and we still try to cook basically once per week, and then just heat up leftovers for the rest of the week. I just wouldn't have the dedication to make fresh, from scratch meals every day, let alone for every meal of the day. And I've already discussed how I've managed to fit in workouts the easiest way I could. It comes down to making habits you'll be able to stick with long term.

Set Reasonable Goals

This is one of the harder things to do longterm, and related to what maybe should have been its own topic - Find Motivation. My initial push was to get to a certain weight before a planned summer trip. But after reaching that goal and not having anything concrete to shoot for, it was easy to slack off a bit, which I did. But I buckled back down again for another vacation, then my 40th birthday, and then it was the holidays. Now we've got another trip planned in a few months. So, even though I've been managing, I know how hard it can be to find the motivation to keep the weight off. I've done it mainly by planning ahead for various events.

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So, I think that mostly covers the lessons I've learned over the past couple years of maintaining my weight loss. I hope that if you're reading this that it helps you out.

Related Entries (including updates):

Image Source: ClipArt-Library

Monday, December 17, 2018

Happy Wright Brothers' Day, 2018

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

On December 17th, 1903, the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, became the first people to achieve an accomplishment that people had been dreaming of for millenia - controlled, powered flight. Now, they weren't lone geniuses working in a vacuum. Others had had earlier limited successes, and people would have figured everything out eventually even without the Wrights (and were largely on the path to doing so, since the Wrights kept so much of their own research a secret), but the Wright brothers had a systematic, logical approach, putting them years ahead of their contemporaries. When they gave their first public demonstrations in France in 1908, crowds were awestruck. They certainly deserve the honor of being the first to flight.

To quote myself from a previous entry, "Flying has become so common place today that we take it for granted. People complain about the cramped seats, the long lines to get through security, the bad food (if you even get any) on flights. But just remember how long people have dreamt of flight, for how long people looked to the skies wanting to emulate the birds. Flying used to be the stuff of myth and legends, reserved for the gods. Now, we can all get in an airplane, and soar above the clouds. It really is something special."

Here are a few of the better aviation related pages/entries on this site that would make for good reading for Wright Brothers Day. The first entry on the last is brand new today.

So as you go about your business today, take a moment to look up and find an airplane, and marvel a little at the achievement.

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Much of the content of this entry was recycled, sometimes verbatim, from previous Wright Brothers Day entries.

Responding to a Flat-Earther Question: How Much Force Does It Take to Accelerate an Aircraft Sideways as It Flies North-South

In honor of Wright Brothers Day, I'm going to post an aviation-themed entry today. This entry started life as a comment on Quora, in response to a flat-earther. The most interesting aspect of the comment thread was a question the flat-earther raised that I'd never really thought about quantifying before.

If you think about the globe spinning, the equator has the highest velocity, going through one rotation per day. The poles have basically zero velocity, being just spinning about a point (from an earth-centric reference frame, at least).

Earth Rotation Diagram

So, if an aircraft flies directly north-south (or vice versa), in order to remain over the same line of longitude, it's sideways velocity has to change - it has to accelerate sideways*. And that means there has to be a sideways force. Just from experience, you know intuitively that it's a negligible force, but can we quantify that? How much of a force are we really talking about?

The flat-earther actually proposed a good thought experiment to think about the issue. Suppose there were a giant merry-go-round, the same diameter as the Earth, spinning at the same rate of 1 rotation per day. If you started at the center of the merry-go-round, you would have zero sideways velocity. If you walked outward on a straight line painted on the merry-go-round, your sideways velocity would start to increase, keeping matched with the merry-go-round. By the time you got to the edge, your sideways velocity would be quite high - close to 1000 mph.

So, let's actually use the merry-go-round thought experiment to determine the necessary forces. The results will be at least in the right order of magnitude, and it makes the math a whole lot simpler than trying to model all this on a globe.

So, here's a diagram of the scenario. You've got a merry-go-round spinning at some rotational velocity, ω. You have an object moving outwards on that merry-go-round at some radial velocity, Vr. That object, because it's on the merry-go-round, will also have some tangential velocity, Vt.

Figure 1

Our goal is to find tangential force, Ft, which is going to be defined by tangential acceleration, at, so we need to find changes in tangential velocity. So, let's let that object travel for some time, t. In that time, it will cover a certain radial distance, dr, which is obviously just defined by dr=Vr*t.

Figure 2

At the first point, 1, it will have a tangential velocity Vt1, where Vt1=ω*R1. And at the second point, 2, it will have a tangential velocity Vt2, where Vt2=ω*R2. Okay, I think that's got all the definitions taken care of. On to the equations:

R2 = R1 + Vr*t

ΔVt = Vt2 - Vt1
ΔVt = ω*R2 - ω*R1
ΔVt = ω*(R1+Vr*t) - ω*R1
ΔVt = ω*R1 + ω*Vr*t - ω*R1
ΔVt = ω*Vr*t

at = ΔVt/t
at = ω*Vr*t/t
at = ω*Vr

Ft = m*at
Ft = m*ω*Vr

So, things simplified quite nicely, where you don't need to worry about where exactly you are on the merry-go-round. All that matters is how fast the merry-go-round is spinning, and how fast the object is moving radially.

Let's calculate one more value, tangential load factor, nt, which is the g's the object will experience in the tangential direction, and is simply the tangential acceleration, at, divided by the regular acceleration due to gravity on Earth, g. Note that this is only dependent on speeds, not masses.

nt = at/g
nt = ω*Vr/g

Now, let's plug in some numbers, going through an example step-by-step. Let's consider a 200 lb person walking briskly at 5 mph (I'm an engineer in the U.S., so I usually stick with ft, lb, seconds, and the like). So first, rotational velocity, ω, will be one revolution per day, which works out to 6.94e-4 rpm, or 7.272e-5 rad/s. The person's mass is found by converting pounds to slugs, and since m = W/g, we get 200 lb / 32.2 ft/s² = 6.21 slugs. And their speed is 5 mph * 5280 / 3600 = 7.33 ft/s. So, we just plug those into the equations:

Ft = m*ω*Vr
Ft = (6.21 slugs)*(7.272e-5 rad/s)*(7.33 ft/s)
Ft = 0.0033 lbs

nt = ω*Vr/g
nt = (7.272e-5 rad/s)*(7.33 ft/s)/(32.2 ft/s²)
nt = 1.656e-5

To summarize, for a 200 lb person walking briskly at 5 mph, the tangential force required to accelerate them as they walk outwards is only 0.0033 lbs, or 1.656e-5 g's. That force is about equivalent to the weight of 5 staples (according to this discussion, at least). That's really, really negligible.

Let's add a few more cases, but instead of going through all the math step by step, again, let's just put the results into a table.

Person, 5 mph Car, 60 mph 747, 570 mph
ω, rev/day 1 1 1
ω, rpm 0.000694 0.000694 0.000694
ω, rad/s 7.27E-05 7.27E-05 7.27E-05
Vr, mph 5 60 570
Vr, ft/s 7.333333 88 836
Wt, lbs 200 4000 735,000
m, slugs 6.21118 124.2236 22,826.09
at, ft/s² 0.000533 0.0064 0.060796
Ft, lbs 0.003312 0.794974 1387.726
nt 1.66E-05 0.000199 0.001888


Those are all small accelerations, and correspondingly small forces (at least in relation to the size objects). Obviously, the acceleration goes up as tangential velocity goes up, but even at the 570 mph speed of a 747, the radial acceleration is still less than a hundredth of a g.

Granted, the actual magnitude of the force on the 747 looks big enough to be somewhat appreciable, but remember to keep it in comparison to size of the aircraft - 1388 lbs of side force on a 735,000 lb aircraft. To further put the force in perspective, keep in mind that if the aircraft weighs 735,000 lbs, the wings have to create that much lift. So, to get 1388 lbs of side force, the aircraft would have to be banked just 0.11°, since arctan(1388 lbs / 735,000 lbs) = 0.11°. Another way to look at it is in comparison to the engine thrust. Since a 747 has an L/D of around 15.5, that means a drag of around 47,400 lbs, and an equal thrust from the engines to counter that. Even if you completely ignored aerodynamic means of accomplishing the side force, it would mean skewing the thrust just 1.7° off of the flight path. These are very small numbers.

And, keep in mind, we simplified things with a giant merry-go-round, which is actually worse than everywhere on Earth except 2 precise locations. The only locations matching this are at the poles, where the surface actually is perpendicular to the rotation axis. Everywhere else, the surface is more angled relative to the rotation axis. Right at the equator, this force/acceleration drops to zero. All latitudes in between will have force/acceleration values somewhere in between this worst case and zero.

So, an object traveling north-south on a spinning globe does indeed have to have some side force to account for the changing tangential velocity. And while we may know intuitively that the force has to be negligible, it's nice to be able to break out the math to calculate what it would need to be.

Spinning globe image source: zaleta.pbworks.com
All other diagrams by author

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*All this actually applies any time traveling north-south, not just directly north-south along a line of longitude. I was just keeping things simple for the sake of discussion.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Big Christmas Post, 2018

Christmas TreeChristmas is less than two weeks away, so it's about time to get up my now annual Big Christmas Post. I've written quite a few Christmas related entries over the years, and posted various comics and memes, so I've decided to gather up links to all the best stuff into one post. I know this is recycling, but it's still good stuff, especially if you've never read it before.

 

Jolly Posts

AOPA Christmas Card A Plane Christmas Greeting
This is a poem written by my late Uncle Bud. We both shared a love of aviation. This is his version of "The Night Before Christmas" (or "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for you pedants), with an aviation twist.
  
Koch Fractal Snowflakes An Early Christmas Present - Koch Snowflake Christmas Ornament 3D Printer STL Files
Last year, I played around with making snowflake ornaments for my 3D printer. But since I'm a nerd, they couldn't be any old snowflakes. These are fractal snowflakes.
  
White Wine in the Sun Merry Secular Christmas 2018 - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Charity
I have a tradition of posting a video of this song every year around Christmas. This year was no exception. Go give it a listen, and donate to the autism charity, Aspect, while you're at it.

 

Curmudgeonly Posts

Santa in the Crosshairs War on Christmas
This was my first War on Christmas post. It covers a bit of the history of Christmas in the U.S. ("a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras"), the Pagan origins of so many modern Christmas traditions, and in general why it's silly to get upset over an imagined War on Christmas.
  
Santa is no more Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars
I've never particularly liked lying to kids about Santa Claus, nor the whole mindset around Christmas time that kids should suppress their doubts and critical thinking skills. Playing pretend with kids is one thing, but lying is something else.
  
Scrooge When Happy Holidays Isn't Good Enough
This was an incident a few years ago that still stands out in my mind - a Salvation Army worker getting physically punched for wishing somebody a 'happy holidays' instead of a 'merry Christmas'. I included a meme that shows the appropriate response to any holiday greeting.
  
Take that, Santa Unintentionally Hilarious War on Christmas Video
Well, this could go into Jolly or Curmudgeonly depending on how you want to take it. This was a video I came across this year from a extreme right wing website - so extreme that I had to do a double take to verify it wasn't parody. Anyway, the video was so over the top that I couldn't help chuckling over it.

 

Should I Donate to _____ Charity?

Since so many people start thinking about donating to charity around the holidays, here are a couple entries on charities.

Salvation Army? The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?
As much as they try to portray a completely wholesome image, the Salvation Army isn't without their controversies. I'm not actually going to advocate that you do or don't donate to them (but if you don't, please donate to somebody else), but you should at least understand some of the activities they engage in that you may not agree with.
  
Charity Debunking an E-mail on Charities
This was written in reply to one of those email forwards, decrying all the supposed waste from certain charities, and suggesting you donate your charity money to other, more worthwhile charities. Well, suffice it to say, since it was an email forward, it wasn't particularly reliable. Granted, it's been a few years since I've looked into each of these charities, but it still gives you a sense of how legitimate various charities are, and provides links to a few watchdog groups.

 

Christmas Memes & Comics

You may have to click to embiggen to read this one.
Calamities of Nature Comic on Charlie Brown Christmas
Source: Calamities of Nature (via the WayBack Machine)

 

Santa Jesus Meme
Source: Master Marf (no idea if that's the original creator)

 


Source: Meme Generator

 

You'll never see one of those cutout plywood nativities the same way, again:
Source: Scoopnest

 

Christmas Tree Image Source: Free christmas Tree Backgrounds

Merry Secular Christmas 2018 - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Charity

In a yearly tradition for this blog, it's time to post one of my favorite Christmas songs, White Wine in the Sun, by Tim Minchin. But more than that, this is a chance to support Aspect, an Australian charity supporting children and adults on the Autism spectrum. For the past several years, Minchin has donated all procedes from sales of the song around Christmas time to the charity (previously known as the National Autistic Society - more info). So, if you don't own a copy of the song, yet, now's a perfect time to buy it.

If you've never heard the song, there's a description on Minchin's site from 2010 which reads, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed."

So, with all that out of the way, here it is, White Wine in the Sun. And new for this year is a new(ish) recording of the song (new for this site, at least):

Also new for this year, I'm including the lyrics, if you want to read along (per Google, from an older recording):

I really like Christmas It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it I am hardly religious I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu To be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas
Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don't go in for ancient wisdom
I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious it means they're worthy
I get freaked out by churches
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords
But the lyrics are dodgy

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To the mis-education of children who, in tax-exempt institutions
Are taught to externalise blame
And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong
But I quite like the songs

I'm not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate's is just fine by me

'Cause I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun
I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You'll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won't understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who'll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl
When you're twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You'll know what ever comes
Your brothers and sisters and me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun

When Christmas comes
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, whenever you come
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Waiting

I really like Christmas
It's sentimental, I know

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Unintentionally Hilarious War on Christmas Video

Santa in the CrosshairsI was just curious if anyone was still going on about the 'War on Christmas', so I googled it, and came across an unintentionally hilarious video, from a site named, non-satirically, ChurchMilitant.com/. At first I thought something so over the top was surely a parody like Landover Baptist, but no, it has it's own Wikipedia page and everything. Anyway, I don't think I can embed the video here, so you'll have to go watch it on the site:

DECEMBER 6, 2018--WAR ON CHRISTMAS: The advance of atheism.

The 'surely this must be parody' stuff started off from the very beginning:

Hello and welcome to The Download, live from our Church Militant studios in Detroit, Michigan. I'm Christine Niles. And, happy Feast of Saint Nicholas, the manly saint who punched the priest Arias in the face, after Arias blasphemed our Lord and rejected His divinity.

Ah, yes, manly saints punching people in the face. None of that turn the other cheek bullshit that some beatnik hippy went on about.

Then the talking head started using all the right-wing cliches you've come to expect about atheists and liberals:

The heretic Arias brought his own war against Christ by rejecting that he was God. That war on Christ continues to this day, brought by secularists who hate Christ and everything he stands for, and try to mask that hatred behind political correctness, or arguments for separation of church and state, a phrase that never actually appears in the Constitution, by the way.

Just for the record, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." while not literally using the phrase 'separation of church and state' certainly seems to be saying that government should keep its nose out of the whole business. And the phrase was coined by a U.S. president, by the way.

The segment then went on to praise Donald Trump for his support of Christmas in the face of political correctness, and showed a clip of Trump from a rally. Now I admit, I hardly ever voluntarily watch Trump, since he hardly ever has anything worthwhile (or coherent) to say. So I guess I'm just not accustomed to his mannerisms. But my goodness is he hilarious. He's like a parody. At one point while the crowd was cheering, he literally winked at someone in the crowd and then did that sleazy lounge host pointing people out move, before doing an unintentional (I hope) Elvis imitation, and then finally moving on to a brave stance in support of the single most popular holiday in the country:

Thank you. Thank you very much. And something I said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year- You know we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season, that people don't talk about anymore. They don't use the word Christmas cause it's not politically correct. You go to department stores and they'll say happy New Year. They'll say other things. And it'll be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say- Well guess what, we're saying Merry Christmas again.

Wow, what an act of heroism. I mean, it's not like 81% of non-Christians in the U.S. celebrate Christmas, including a majority of Buddhists, Hindus, religiously unaffiliated, and even a third of Jews (Pew - Christmas also celebrated by many non-Christians).

And yeah, those department stores are loathe to admit what all this 'holiday' shopping is about:

Oh, wait, I did find a page on Wal-mart called Ready, Set, Holiday!, that did have a whole bunch of 'holiday' references and not so many 'Christmas' references, at least until you actually followed any of the links or looked at any of the products being sold.

It's hard to believe this is the world we live in today - a clown like Trump in the White House, and right wing kooks making websites that are barely distinguishable from SNL skits.

Oh well, I'll take the unintentional humor as an early Christmas present. Merry Christmas everyone.

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For a bit of an entertaining read, check out the following TV Tropes page. It's not about this site, per se, but it definitely reveals the mindset:
TV Tropes - Church Militant

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

John Gray Misrepresents New Atheists in Vox Interview

John GrayI like Vox in general, but it recently published an interview with John Gray criticizing New Atheism. Now, I'm not enamored with the label of 'New Atheism', but I suppose that if I had to choose where my views mostly align, New Atheism would be it. Now maybe I'm not as closely aligned with New Atheism as I suppose, but I have to say that many of Gray's criticisms, and those of the interviewer, Sean Illing, just don't reflect my own views at all.

I'll start by giving my own understanding of New Atheism. Because the existence of gods is an objective question, the best tool to try to determine whether or not any gods actually do exist is science 'loosely defined'* - the systematic and rational study of evidence. Despite some apologetic waffling, most people actually do approach religion looking for evidence - written scriptures, archaeological confirmation of their scriptures, miracles of the divine directly interacting in the world, etc. But I think most people fail in the systematic and rational evaluation of such evidence (and since religions are mutually contradictory, most people are necessarily wrong).

My disagreement with the Gray interview started with the headline itself, "Why science can't replace religion: John Gray on the myths the New Atheists' tell themselves." This is a theme that he repeated throughout the interview - science replacing religion. But that's not the New Atheist position. Yes, science is great at what it does - answering objective questions. It's by far the best method humanity has developed for this purpose. And that does conflict with many of the objective claims coming from religions. But, addressing objective claims is science's only purpose. Science has nothing to say on right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, awe-inspiring or mundane. For those types of concerns, we turn to other fields - ethics, philosophy, art, etc. Setting up the debate as science alone vs. religion is a false dichotomy. (I've written about this in much more detail on Quora, including some passages I lifted verbatim for this paragraph.)

Moving on to the article itself, I'll start with a quote from the introduction, from Sean Illing.

Although they were right about a lot of things, the New Atheists missed something essential about the role of religion. For them, religion was just a protoscience -- our first attempt at biology and history and physics. But religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world, and you can't fully understand if you don't account for that.

Illing is making the New Atheist position seem much less nuanced than it is. Of course New Atheists recognize that there are a huge variety of approaches to religion and varying beliefs among the religious. When it comes to other religions outside of theism, some New Atheists actually embrace them. There are plenty of atheists in Unitarian Universalist church pews. Some atheists even practice non-supernatural versions of more traditional religions such as Buddhism (including Sam Harris, one of the 'Four Horsemen' of New Atheism). It's simply misrepresenting the New Atheist position to say that they see religion as simply a protoscience with no other roles.

New Atheists do tend to focus their criticisms on more literal forms of Christianity, but that's because a) New Atheists tend to live in places where Christianity is the dominant religion, and b) literal forms of Christianity tend to be the more harmful versions in those places (other brands of harmful religion just don't have the same influence in those places). Paraphrasing what I've said before, if religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, New Atheists wouldn't have nearly as much to get worked up about.

Moreover, it's the fundamentalist religionists who are making "a set of claims about the world", so of course New Atheists are going to respond. And to be clear, fundamentalist Christians aren't some fringe group. Somewhere around 38% of Americans are creationists, and many of them push to get creationism taught in schools. So, with only so many hours in a day, of course I'm going to focus my criticisms on those types of religion, rather than more innocuous or nebulous religions that don't so clearly contradict reality or cause as much harm in society.


Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can't really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people. Most of these clever people are not that clever when compared with really clever people like Wittgenstein or Saint Augustine or Pascal -- all philosophers of the past who seriously engaged the religious perspective.

This seems to be a standard complaint from religiously sympathetic philosophers - New Atheists don't take religion seriously enough. If we did, we'd grapple with the profundity of it all. But yes, smart people from the past really can be mistaken, no matter how much serious thought they've given to problems. Geocentricism was respectable up until the Copernican Revolution in the 1500s. That's millennia of serious, very intelligent philosophers having such a profound mistake about something as simple as the motion of celestial bodies. So I don't think it's hard to imagine they could be wrong about religion, as well, considering the societal pressure and the motivated reasoning of wanting to avoid Hell, and especially considering trying to make sense of the world in a pre-scientific age.


These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world.

Now, maybe Gray is comparing New Atheists to PhD philosophers, but New Atheists tend to be more knowledgeable of religion than the general public. Here's an article describing a poll from a few years ago, Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious. Atheists on average knew more about the diversity of religions than believers (e.g Christians knew very little about Buddhism), and atheists even had better knowledge of the Bible than Christians as a whole (but not quite as good as white evangelicals).


I can't resist quoting this statement. It's not wrong, per se, but it does seem like a stereotype of an overly-wordy philosopher:

If Darwinism is right, and I think it's the best approximation we have to the truth about how humans came into the world, then all aspects of the human animal are shaped by the imperatives of survival.

That's like calling heliocentricism the best approximation we have to the truth about how celestial bodies move in our solar system, or a NASA created globe the best approximation we have to the truth about the geography of Earth. I mean, sure, everything we know about the universe is an approximation at some level, but in normal conversation, can't we simply say that certain things are just true? Couldn't he have just said something like, "Since we evolved..."


A bit later, he was making arguments in line with the headline.

There's this silly idea that we have no need for religion anymore because we have science, but this is an incredibly foolish notion, since religion addresses different needs than science, needs that science can't address.

And then this:

Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means.

That's where religion steps in.

But why religion? Why not secular philosophy? Or ethics? Just because people claim that religion addresses these other issues doesn't mean that it addresses them adequately or gives good answers. Heck, there's no guarantee that there even are satisfying answers to some of these questions no matter how you want to address them.


For example, there are still people who treat the myths of religion, like the Genesis story, as some kind of literal truth, even though they were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.

Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It's not obsolete, primitive science. It's not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn't like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.

I get a bit tired of hearing this style of argument, let's call it the Philosopher's Religion, that religious believers of the past were all these sophisticated philosopher types who 'obviously' didn't take their scriptures seriously on a literal level, and that it's only modern day simpletons who corrupt scripture and take Genesis at its word, or even New Atheists misrepresenting the religious to try to make them look more primitive.

Let's take a look at what Saint Augustine had to say about some of the claims of Genesis - one of those 'clever' deep thinkers Gray mentioned earlier in the interview.

They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.

He also wrote extensively about Adam and Eve in formulating his views on Original Sin. And he clearly saw Adam and Eve as two real-life people. (more info - Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin and Augustine's Literal Adam)

So, it seems that Saint Augustine was taking the general history from Genesis pretty seriously. Granted, he thought the seven days were metaphorical, but only because he believed God created the universe in an instant. And yes, ancient theologians did have varying views of the degree of metaphor vs. literalism in interpreting the Bible (and not necessarily mutually contradictory, if they thought the Bible could be interpreted on multiple levels), but it's not like theologians who took the Bible as literal truth were a rarity. (I actually cover a bit about the age of the universe and how many theologians accepted a 6,000 - 8,000 year age in a Quora answer.)

The point is, plenty of very smart people throughout history have interpreted the Bible fairly literally, as an actual history of Earth and civilization. Without outside context, there's no obvious reason not to. I wish people like Gray would quit insisting that the 'Philosopher's' interpretation was the original, widely agreed upon view.


There's no doubt that religions have contained many ideas that have caused humans harm. There's not the slightest doubt about that. All human institutions cast a shadow which comes from the evil they carry within themselves.

[skipping ahead a bit]

At the same time, we should remember that many of the secular religions of the 20th century condemned gay people, for example.

Homosexuality was illegal for most of the time that the Soviet Union existed. Doctors who performed abortions in communist Romania could be sent to prison, and in some cases even subjected to capital punishment. Many of the worst features or the worst human harms inflicted by monotheism have been paralleled in the secular religions of modern times.

So ideas do have consequences. All we can do is try to embody these traditions as much as possible. There isn't some form of life, not even an imaginary type of pure liberalism, that is free of these terrible consequences.

Gray's point about 'secular religions' is a good one, but also one that New Atheists would agree with. When looking at the example of Soviet Russia, the problem was the authoritarianism and forced dogma. Lysenkoism is an oft-cited example of how rejection of evidence can lead to horrible outcomes. So yes, New Atheists promote critical thinking and following evidence. They tend to be skeptics first, and the atheism is just fallout from following the evidence. If you merely reject gods but don't follow the critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, you may be an atheist, but not really part of New Atheism.

Moving past secular religions, Gray's observation that secular institutions have done bad things is entirely unremarkable. That's human nature. The question is not whether all the ills of the world are attributable to religion, because they're obviously not. The question is whether religion is a positive or negative influence on balance, remembering that it will depend on the particular religion. (And even this would only a consideration for how vigorously atheists should criticize different religions - it doesn't change whether or not they're true.)

Let me put it another way. Many secular pursuits are a blank slate as far as morality. They'll take on the morality of the society around them, but they're morally neutral. Religions propose to define morality. They're not neutral. They don't just take on the morality of the surrounding society, but also shape that morality. And when you have a set of scriptures like the Bible, there are a lot of distasteful moral lessons. I mean, do you really think there would be anywhere near as much discrimination against the LGBT+ community without Christian 'morals'?

So yes, as humanity increasingly leaves behind traditional religion (e.g. 5 key findings about the changing U.S. religious landscape), members of society will have to ensure that we don't simply let religion be replaced by non-supernatural alternatives. But given the numerous studies on the topic (e.g. Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies, I don't think that's something we need to be overly concerned about.


I think you've put it very closely to the way I put it in the book. Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it's a flight from a genuinely godless world.

I'm most interested in the atheists who've seriously asked what it's like to live in a godless world. Not to construct some alternative God, like reimagining humanity as some collective agent that manifests itself through history or science or some other redemptive force.

I'm not really sure how Gray thinks atheists should be responding to a godless world. Are we supposed to be more solemn once we realize there's no god running the universe and looking out for us? Going around in a funk because we're on our own and there's no cosmic justice? Or are we supposed to be happy once we realize there's no cosmic tyrant who can condemn souls to Hell on a whim, or for the crime of doubt? It really all depends on your viewpoint and which conception of god(s) you're considering.

And what about that last sentence? Many people I know would like for all people to work together to try to make a better society. It's a goal, an aspiration we hope to accomplish. And yes, we often talk about 'society' as a collective, and we'll use collective terms like 'zeitgeist' in our discussions of society. Are New Atheists supposed to ignore these social aspects of humanity and become misanthropes, and leave all that social cooperation to the religious? You can recognize that groups have collective behaviors and emergent properties without pretending there's anything mystical or 'redemptive' about it.

I don't know what more of a reaction there should be to a godless world other than saying that the universe is what it is, and it's in our own hands to fashion society how we want it to be.


I think we should regard religions as great works of the human imagination rather than pictures of the world intended to capture what is empirically true. Any atheism that fails to do this will invariably miss what is most essential and enduring about religion, and probably make the mistake of smuggling religious assumptions into their secular alternative to religion.

I would challenge Gray to visit First Baptist Church here in Wichita Falls on a Sunday morning and poll the parishioners about their religious beliefs. Would they be okay with describing Jesus as merely a 'great work of the human imagination'? Does it matter to them whether the crucifixion and resurrection were 'empirically true', or would it be fine if those were metaphorical myths built up over the years? I'm willing to bet a very large sum of money that these religious people actually do care a great deal about the empirical truth of their religion.


I think we have to own up to it, because the danger of thinking that science can provide values has been demonstrated many times. What often happens is that science simply validates the ruling values of the time, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, those were racist values.

Refer, again, to what I quoted from myself up above. Science neither defines nor validate values. It's an attempt to determine objective truth. Values come from other parts of humanity outside science.


Aside from the many mischaracterizations of New Atheism in this interview, what always gets me about views like these is the conception of what religion should be, the Philosopher's Religion as I termed it up above. Gray's not just criticizing New Atheists, he also seems to be implying the 'right' way to be religious. Granted, there are plenty of people who view religion in this more metaphorical, values-only way, but it's not the mainstream view of the masses. Most religious people actually do literally believe in gods and spirits and all the other supernatural elements. Sure there are emotional reasons that motivate people to accept religion, but people aren't accepting the purely emotional reasons and then rejecting all the empirical claims. They take their holy books at least somewhat at face value. They don't see the claims as 'as great works of the human imagination'. They really, honestly believe that many of the events described did indeed literally happen.

But even then, the emotional answers that religion gives aren't always the best answers available. As I've said numerous times throughout this response, there are better approaches than religion to these more subjective aspects of our lives, such as philosophy, ethics, and art. Do you really want people getting their ethics from books written thousands of years ago by anonymous authors with unknown motivations? Or would you rather they did a little bit more applied thinking on the issues?

Image Source: BBC

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*That definition comes from the evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne. Speaking of which, he's written his own response to this interview. I purposely avoided reading it, though, until I was done with this response, to make sure I wouldn't be biased by what he had to say. But if you want to ready what Coyne had to say, you can follow this link:
John Gray and Sean Illing go after New Atheism for the bazillionth time, but offer no new (or incisive) arguments

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