Posts Tagged With: NPR

Why Do So Many Have Trouble Believing In Evolution?

So, I was just sitting here drinking my coffee, trying to push off the start of the school day as much as possible, when I came across this article.  It addresses an issue that I find puzzling:  Why is it so hard for people to believe in a creator god and the natural process of evolution at the same time?  I personally feel that the processes of evolution do not scientifically need a grand designer to function, but honestly, I do not see why  the two must stand at odds with each other (but then again, maybe that’s just the mediator in me coming to the surface…)

I think that the main reason so many people are against evolution is that they simply do not understand it.  And for many, the idea that “we came from monkeys” is absurd and a disgrace.  Eh, even if that were as true and simple as it sounds, I wouldn’t really have a problem with it.  But framing it in the “we came from monkeys” framework vastly oversimplifies the different processes of evolutionary that contribute to the progress of our species.

Here’s one situation that tests my patience:  Someone else and I are discussing life and evolution comes up:

Other person: “Oh yeah – if we came from monkeys, HOW COME THERE ARE STILL MONKEYS?” (And then they sit there with a smug smile on their face, as if they have just issued an intellectual check-mate, boo-ya! Now whatcha gonna say, Mr. Smarty McScience-pants?!)

And then I usually get a smug smile on my face, for two reasons: #1 to try to hide the fact that I, too, once thought this was the Achilles Heel of Evolutionary theory; #2, because that statement reveals that that person doesn’t understand even the basics of evolution. (Of course, you might not necessarily be able to blame them – they could have been like me – I went to a school in which evolution was hastily mentioned one day in science class, and that was when the teacher told us “Just so you know there is a theory out there called evolution.  If you want to know about it, you’ll have to read about it on your own; we’re not going to learn about it here because it goes against the Bible.”)

To simplify what I’ve learned after high school: Evolution is not a process of replacement; it is made up of different, branching processes.  That’s why humans did not “come from” monkeys to “replace” them.  Different apes and primates share a common ancestor, which we all branched from.  Sometime in the past, we branched off from that ancestor because we had evolved some type of advantageous difference.  That’s why humans and apes/monkeys can coexist.

And to address the other “slam dunk” against evolution:  It’s just a “theory.” Well, let it suffice to say that a scientific theory is much different than your theory of where the other sock goes in the drier.  Without even going into all of the experiments, results, facts, etc. that the scientific process uses to back up its theories, here’s a little example to show just how solid “theories” can be.  Evolution is a theory just as gravity is a theory.  WHAT?  GRAVITY? THEORY? Yeah.  No one can prove that one day we won’t drop the apple and it will fall up instead of down.  And since that can’t be proven, theory is a gravity.  Evolution shares the same “theoretical” standing as the theory that is keeping us glued to the Earth right now.

AND, I’ve just realized that I’m up on my soapbox and halfway through a rant, which was not my intention (this coffee must be stronger than I thought!).  So, I’m going to stand down now, and leave you with two things.  First is a short YouTube video in which a scientists explains the process of change known as evolution.  It helped me understand it a lot better; maybe you can benefit too.

And as far as the evolution vs. God thing: I have my opinion, but I guess that’s a personal decision.  I’m not sure how anyone can look at the evidence and not have to rethink how they’ve been interpreting the Bible…and I’m not sure why people think God couldn’t or wouldn’t use a million-year long, intricate, beautiful, and awe-inspiring process to ensure that life on the planet progressed…Anyways, I digress.  On to the video and the NPR article!

And now the NPR article: 

by MARCELO GLEISER,, 1/19/12

The evidence is clear, as in a February 2009 Gallup Poll, taken on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, that reported only 39 percent of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36 percent don’t have an opinion either way.

The same poll correlated belief in evolution with educational level: 21 percent of people with a high school education or less believed in evolution. That number rose to 41 percent for people with some college attendance, 53 percent for college graduates, and 74 percent for people with a postgraduate education.

Clearly, the level of education has an impact on how people feel about evolution.

Another variable investigated by the same poll was how belief in evolution correlates with church attendance. Of those who believe in evolution, 24 percent go to church weekly, 30 percent go nearly weekly/monthly, and 55 percent seldom or never go.

Not surprisingly, and rather unfortunately, religious belief interferes with people’s understanding of what the theory of evolution says.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s in the fossil record, carefully dated using radioactivity, the release of particles from radioactive isotopic decay, which works like a very precise clock. Rocks from volcanic eruptions (igneous rocks) buried near a fossil carry certain amounts of radioactive material, unstable atomic nuclei that emit different kinds of radiation, like tiny bullets. The most common is Uranium-235, which decays into Lead-207. Analyzing the ratio of Uranium-235 to Lead-207 in a sample, and knowing how frequently Uranium-235 emits particles (its half-life is 704 million years, the amount half a sample decays into Lead), scientists can get a very accurate measure of the age of a fossil.

But evidence for evolution is also much more palpable, for example in the risks of overprescribing antibiotics: the more we (and farm animals) take antibiotics, the higher the chance that a microbe will mutate into one resistant to the drug. This is in-your-face evolution, species mutating at the genetic level and adapting to a new environment (in this case, an environment contaminated with antibiotics). The proof of this can be easily achieved in the laboratory (see link above), by comparing original strands of bacteria with those subjected to different doses of antibiotics. It’s simple and conclusive, since the changes in the genetic code of the resistant mutant can be identified and studied.

However, there are creationist scientists who claim that mutation is not the true mechanism of resistance. Instead, they claim that bacteria already had those genes in some sort of dormant state, which were then activated by their exposure to antibiotics. For example, Dr. Georgia Purdom argues that this inbuilt mechanism is “a testimony to the wonderful design God gave bacteria, master adapters and survivors in a sin-cursed world.” I couldn’t identify any data to back her hypothesis that bacterial resistance to antibiotics comes from horizontal gene swap and not mutation.

Does evolution really need to be such a stumbling block for so many? Is it really that bad that we descended from monkeys? Doesn’t that make us even more amazing, primates that can write poetry and design scientific experiments? Behind this strong resistance to evolution there is a deep dislike for a scientific understanding of how nature works. The problem seems to be related to the age-old God-of-the-Gaps agenda, that the more we understand of the world the less room there is for a creator God. This is bad theology, as it links belief to the development of science.

Categories: Religion, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Stephen Hawking’s ‘Unfettered Mind’

NPR – January 3, 2012

By NPR staff

Make a list of the world’s most popular scientists, and Stephen Hawking’s name will be near or at the very top of the list.

Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time and a professor at the University of Cambridge, is known as much for his contributions to theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity as for his willingness to make science accessible for the general public, says science writer Kitty Ferguson.

“It’s not dumbing down [science]; it’s really making it accessible, hopefully, to a lot of people,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

Ferguson, who helped Hawking edit his 2001 book The Universe in a Nutshell, is the author of a new Hawking biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind. Written with Hawking’s blessing, the book traces his life from childhood to Oxford, and then to his graduate work at Cambridge in the early 1960s, where he was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease and given less than two years to live.

But Hawking’s disease has progressed slowly, while his personal and professional life has flourished. He celebrates his 70th birthday this January, says Ferguson, and continues to work on projects despite having very limited use of his physical body. (He communicates using a voice synthesizer, which he controls using a muscle in his cheek.)

“It’s just so interesting to see how he came to terms with [his illness],” says Ferguson. “What he says is that it wasn’t courage. [He says] ‘I just did what I had to do.’ … He took to listening to a lot of Richard Wagner, thinking of himself as a rather tragic hero. His mind went through all kinds of ways of dealing with that type of problem, but eventually, I think, he realized that theoretical physics was kind of a great escape from it.”

Science writer Kitty Ferguson sits next to Stephen Hawking in this undated photograph. Ferguson is the author of several books about physics, including Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything and Black Holes in Spacetime.

Hawking Radiation And A Unified Theory Of Everything

In the 1970s, Hawking discovered what is now called “Hawking radiation.” At the time, his discovery was controversial because many scientists — including Hawking — had believed that nothing could ever come out of a black hole, so a black hole could never get any smaller.

But Hawking postulated that if two individual particles were right at the edge of a black hole, and one of them happened to fall into the black hole, then the other particle could escape out into space, and appear as radiation being emitted from the black hole. Therefore, black holes could lose both mass and energy — and could, in fact, grow smaller.

Hawking’s discovery raised many questions about what goes on inside black holes and our universe itself, says Ferguson.

“[His discovery raised questions like] ‘What happens to the star that collapsed that formed the black hole? What happens to all of that when the black hole disappears entirely?’ ” she says. “And does this mean that this information is completely lost to our universe? And if it is … to physics, that’s a huge problem. Because if information can be lost from the universe, that’s a violation of a law that says it can’t disappear.”

Hawking has also pursued what is called “theory of everything,” which is conceptually an idea that there should be one theory from which everything else in the universe can be explained or derived.

“He has been predicting for most of his career that we will find it,” says Ferguson. “Recently he has decided that it’s probably going to be impossible for anybody, ever, to find the theory of everything. And this is a huge turnaround. He thinks we’ll come up with some theories that are approximations … but we’ll never be able to know the underlying mysterious theory that would really explain the entire universe.”

Interview Highlights

On time travel

“Someone recently asked him, ‘If time travel were possible, what would you go back to in your life?’ And you would expect him to say his discovery of Hawking radiation or a big prize [he’d won]. What he said was he would go back to the birth of his first child, his son Robert.”

On how Hawking communicates

“When he sees the part of the screen that has the word that he’s looking for, he punches a little mouse. Then the screen changes and we see lines of words scrolling down, and those are the words from that part of the screen. Then when he sees the word he wants, he activates his little switch again. Then you see the screen changing again and you see the words, and when he sees the next word he wants, he punches the device again. Then that word goes across the bottom of the screen. And he builds his sentence at the bottom of a screen. When he gets the sentence completed, he makes another movement, which indicates that his synthetic voice should speak that sentence. … It sounds simple, but it’s not simple. It moves at the speed of a video game, and very often he misses a word or misses the line, and then the whole thing has to start over. What that means is that working with him can be frustrating. Very often, you know what word he’s after. You know what word he wants to capture. But protocol says you do not second-guess him. You do not move ahead and say, ‘Stephen, I know what you’re trying to say.’ You let him finish. Because he’s going to finish anyway. It would be impolite, as it would be to interrupt anybody talking.”

On Hawking’s singularity theory and no-boundary proposal

“He likes to describe that as though you were traveling backward on a globe of the Earth. When you get to the South Pole, the concept of ‘south’ no longer means anything. You don’t say an airplane flew south of the South Pole. So it’s the same thing — time becomes meaningless. Now when you start to think about that, first of all, Hawking says that relieves us of need for creator. There doesn’t have to be a creation. It just started. And it was all kind of space dimensions, no time dimensions. What I find really interesting about that is that it’s not a new idea. It’s an idea you find in early Christian and Jewish philosophers like Philo of Alexandria or Augustine. They both conceived of a universe in which time didn’t exist outside of our creation. Time was part of the creator. And God exists outside of time in the eternal now. It’s the same idea. It was not new to theology, not new to philosophy, but very new to physics.”

On Hawking’s popularity

“He is popular because he deals with things right on the border of human knowledge. The origin of the universe, black holes — these are questions that are out on the edge, on the frontier between the known and unknown and the possibly unknowable. I love the phrase of what Wheeler, the American physicist, called the flaming ramparts of the world. [Hawking] tries to take us with him on this adventure, and it is fun and it’s mind-blowing and wonderful.”

On the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson particle

“He has placed a bet that the Higgs particle will not be found. … One of the mysteries in physics is what gives elementary particles — electrons, quarks — their mass. Mass, we often define as how many matter particles there are in an object. That becomes a little stupid when we’re talking about a thing that is just one matter particle itself. So there’s another definition for mass, which is: the resistance you feel if you push against something … and where does that resistance come from? That’s the mystery that the Higgs particle would solve. … That’s what we’re looking for, this Higgs field. The Large Hadron Collider, what it does is accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light and then slams them together in these head-on collisons, and hopefully in the debris of one of those collisions — just in a split second — a minuscule part of the Higgs field will break away and that will be the Higgs particle. … So far, they have pretty good evidence that they may have seen it, but it’s not definitive yet.”

Categories: Science/Technology | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Fear of the TwitterBook

I’ll go ahead and say in advance – being that the new academic year has started, I will have less and less time to do any actual writing of my own for this site, which means that more and more of the content will be random tid-bits of the Net, or articles that I have come across during the day.

Maybe you’ll find them as interesting as I do.

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about technology (It’s a Small World After All).  This NPR article goes hand in hand with that one.

And it makes me think of a little bit of info that I learned in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course several years ago.  It is a phenomenon called habitus.  Essentially (if I remember it correctly), it is the brain rewiring (“softly”…as in it doesn’t necessarily become “hard”wired) itself to accommodate learned actions.  Let me explain:  there are some things that are hard-wired into our brains:  breathing, or ducking when a baseball is coming at our face, for example.  But there are other “reflexes” that can actually be learned.  We aren’t born with the knowledge of using a remote, yet our thumbs know just the right spot to hit (once they’ve been taught).  Another example:  keyboards.  Once you teach yourself where the keys are, your brain can “softly” rewire itself to accommodate that action.  But it’s more than just learning an action.  To your brain it’s almost as if typing on a keyboard is a reflex, because it has set itself up that way.  So, typing actually becomes like second nature to you.

This is an example of culture (outside) affecting neurology (inside).

Now, for the NPR article.  It has nothing to do with habitus directly – but it does have to do with the relationship between technology and culture.  (For example, how the invention of the clock made everyone “aware” of time – that is, they constantly thought about minutes and seconds and hours – whereas before, such concepts of “on time” “late”, or even minutes, and seconds and hours, meant nothing.)


I may not have invented the Internet but it’s possible I was the first guy to find out he was gonna be a dad through it. (It’s a long, 1980s NSFnet kind of story.) I was also, without a doubt, the first guy in Nerdville with a PalmPilot. My whole professional life has demanded early tech adoption: everything from file-transfer software to 3-D visualization to mobile computing. It was, however, only a week or so ago that I sent my first tweet.

I held off for a long time on Facebook and Twitter. Now that I’m getting deep into both, I have to ask: Why did I wait so long? More broadly and more importantly, what takes any culture or any individual “so long” in adopting new technologies?

For a world both blessed and battered by innovation what forces govern the adoption of new technologies? What leads us, as individuals, to opt into new technological modalities at particular moments in their development curve, from “hot new thing” to “everyone has one”?

And what about opting out? What happens when individuals decide to completely step away from a technological modality the rest of the culture has embraced? And how about cultures as a whole? Have entire societies ever completely dismissed a burgeoning new technological capacity?

Sometimes a technology sweeps across culture with a force that simply cannot be avoided. The first public mechanical clockappeared in Orvieto, Italy, in 1307. One hundred years later public clocks had evolved into the standard even in smaller settlements. The human experience and organization of time had become wedded to the new technology of mechanical time metering and the world was never the same.

In our technology saturated world however innovations come and go. Some, such as email and iPods, spread with the speed of an epidemic and alter the genetic (mememic) code of culture. Others, like MySpace or Sony’s failed mini-disk, flare and fade, or just fail entirely. But what is the role of individual choice embedded, as it is, in its cultural background of adoption or dismissal? What price do we pay as individuals if we decide to never pick up a technology, or to opt out once it has risen to prominence? What reasons shape these choices?

The “videophone” presents an interesting on-going example of adoption/opt-out. Pairing video and voice communication seemed the pinnacle of future-tech in Stanley Kubrick’s film2001: A Space Oddessy. Now, in 2011, the technological capacity for video calls has existed for years. As super-cool as the idea appears, the reality is that people remain luke-warm about its use. Skype and other platforms have made the service insanely simple. Still, many folks simply don’t want to be “seen” on every call and won’t use the technology unless forced into it (such as in work-related video conferencing where you are supposed to look nice anyway).

At some point video calls may become so prevalent that rejecting one will seem as Luddite as not having a telephone in your house was 30 years ago. But at this moment in videophone history, it is still possible to opt out.

Which brings me back to my avoidance of Facebook. To be honest I may have held back because of tech snobbery. I can still remember how horrified I was back in 1992 when I saw .comappearing at the end of a Web address. “You can’t use the Internet to sell things,” I thought. “It’s for learning!” (Obviously you don’t want me as your investment advisor). And to be truthful I may have avoided it (and Twitter) because, at 49, I am just getting old and crusty. But in reality, I stayed away because I did not see the point. Overwhelmed with email and texts and my omnipresent iPhone, I could not see why I wanted another node of electronic contact. And Twitter? 140 Characters? Really?

But my kids forced me onto Facebook a year ago (I demanded they friend me in the name of transparency) and my publisher pushed me to Twitter as part of my part of the launch of my new book (shameless plug here). In both cases I could immediately see I had blinded myself to how and why these platforms had launched such powerful reconfigurations of the tech-enabled cultural imagination. As my editor at NPR, Wright Bryan, puts it: “It’s the insane flexibility of these platforms that gives them so much power.”

It is the open-ended brilliance of Facebook and (as I am learning) Twitter in creating ever-shifting, ever-nested webs of connection that take them beyond themselves. Both sites may eventually be replaced by something newer. But by creating technological norms for a particular kind of connectivity, the electronic social networks they embody are transforming our historical moment as completely as mechanical time metering changed life in 15th century.

Culture sees itself and the cosmos as a whole through the lens of its technological capabilities. That fact may explain when adoption grows beyond mere choice. Once a technology settles in to the point where it begins shaping the dominant metaphors of a society (the 17th century’s “clockwork universe” for example), then there is no going back, no opting out. You and everyone you know will be assimilated.

Until that moment, however, you may still have time to hit “delete all” and quietly walk away.

Categories: Science/Technology | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Sunday Sermon: Working Together

A Ramadan Story of Two Faiths Bound in Friendship 

by NPR staff; original article here


It’s Ramadan, the month-long holiday when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk as a way to cleanse the soul and reflect on their relationship with God. The faithful usually flock to their local mosques for prayer during the holiday, but last year, the Muslims of Cordova, Tenn., just outside Memphis, didn’t have a place to go.

That’s when Pastor Steve Stone put an unusual sign outside his church.

“It said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood, Memphis Islamic Center,'” he laughs. “It’s been seen all over the world, now.”

Stone invited the Muslim community to celebrate their holiday inside his church while their own cultural center was under construction nearby. It was the beginning of an unusual alliance that’s still strong a year later.

“Obviously we were taken aback, but in a very positive way,” says Danish Siddiqui, a board member of the Memphis Islamic Center. “Muslims, we tend to think of ourselves as good neighbors,” he tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan, “but Steve beat us to the punch and put up that sign — and all we had to do was knock on the door and introduce ourselves.”

The Muslim community was building a new mosque, but it was a delicate time. Proposed Islamic centers were kicking up controversy from New York to Murfreesboro — another Tennessee town just 200 miles away from Cordova.

“We were looking at some close-by halls and rental spaces and none of them were available,” Siddiqui says. They asked Stone if they could borrow a small space inside his Heartsong Church. “He said, ‘No. You’re going to pray in our main worship space.'”

“We were so honored to be asked, because we knew that if they ever had any thought that we would say no, they would not have asked us,” Stone says.

Not everyone was as thrilled as Stone however. He received criticism from colleagues — and even members of his own church — who felt that he was blending Christianity and Islam. Ultimately, 20 members left his church, out of a congregation of 550.

“We had tried to work with them and think their way through it,” Stone says, “but at the end of the day, if they really believed what they said they believed, we’re kind of glad they left, because we didn’t want them going out into the community and saying, ‘We have these hateful feelings and we go to Heartsong Church.'”

Although the Memphis Islamic Center is now complete, the Muslim community keeps a strong relationship with Stone and Heartsong’s members. Once a month, they get together to help the homeless in their neighborhood, and there are also plans to build a new park that would sit on both congregations’ property.

“We have different faith traditions,” Siddiqui says. “But at the same time, we know that we can get along, we know that we can work together. And we have respect for one another, because we are people of faith.”







Categories: Religion | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at