Thursday, July 31, 2008

Diseases - repsonsible for the success of religions?

This seems a bit odd to me. But here is a story about a study that claims that protection from infectious diseases may be the driving force behind religions (hat tip 3quarksdaily):

Dr Corey Fincher and Prof Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, come to this conclusion after studying why religions are far more numerous in the tropics compared with the temperate areas.

"Why does Cote d'Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?" they ask.

The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests.

Ok, I have to get hold of the published paper. Somewhere here there seems to be a causation/correalation problem, but I'll comment on it after seeing the paper. In the mean time, here is their prediction and test:

Any society that increased its coherence by adopting a religion, and dealt less with local groups with other beliefs as a result of cultural isolation, gained an advantage in being less likely to pick up diseases from its neighbours, and in the longer term to have a slightly different genetic makeup that may offer protective effects, for instance by making them less susceptible to a virus.

Equally, societies where infectious diseases are more common are less likely to migrate and disperse, not because of the effects of disease itself but as a behaviour that has evolved over time.

" If this argument is correct then, across the globe, religion diversity should correlate positively with infectious disease diversity," they say.

And the team finds evidence to back this.

"A sample of traditional societies shows that the range of those societies is lower in areas with more disease agents, compared with areas with few pathogens, and in countries religion diversity is positively related to two measures of stress caused by infection with parasites. Religion richness was positively related to disease richness (and significantly so)."

As predicted, "we found that religion diversity is the highest where disease diversity is also the highest and the lowest where disease diversity is also the lowest. To our knowledge, previous evolutionary models do not offer an explanation for why religion diversity varies spatially across the globe.

But what about other competing socio-poltical forces affecting the growth of religious groups? Or non-religious factors leading to the segmentation of the population? I will get a copy of the paper and get on this.

Read the full story here. And of course, for more on origin of religions, check out David Sloan Wilson, as part of our Science & Religion lecture series at Hampshire College.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lewis Wolpert on Point of Inquiry

Here is a good interview on The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. Wolpert's main idea is that the origin of belief in supernatural lies in the human ability to make tools (i.e. understand cause and effect). He also makes a departure from the New Atheists and believes that religion can be useful for some people. Overall, he has an interesting take on things. Check out the interview here.
Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London, focusing his research on the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the Royal Society of Literature. He has presented science on both radio and TV for years, and was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science in the UK. Among his books are Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (the basis for the BBC documentary entitled 'A Living Hell"), The Triumph of the Embryo, and A Passion for Science (with Alison Richards). His most recent book is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief.

Monday, July 28, 2008

More restrictions for Iranian-born scientists - The Dutch edition

Once bitten, twice shy. It seems that Holland is still suffering from the A.Q. Khan and Pakistan's nuclear program debacle. From Science (Jul 11, 2008):
Iranian-born scientists and students are upset by new Dutch regulations, announced last week, that ban them from nine fields of study and five research facilities where they might have access to nuclear technology. The Dutch government says the rules are an implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1737, which seeks to limit Iran's access to nuclear technology (Science, 1 February, p. 556).

But the new rules are the strictest of any country and are unfairly singling out one group, critics say. "This stigmatizes the next generation of Iranian scientists," says Nasser Kalantar of the Nuclear Physics Accelerator Institute in Groningen, the Netherlands, who says he plans to investigate whether the measure is constitutional. Peyman Jafari of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam hopes the Dutch parliament will intervene. The Netherlands is particularly sensitive to the issue because Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's nuclear program, passed on highly classified material to Pakistan while working at a Dutch uranium-enrichment plant in the 1970s.

Loved the bit about "the so-called father of Pakistan's nuclear program". This is funny because its true. During the 80's and 90's, A.Q. Khan did present himself (yes, he was much fond of self-promotion before his recent house-arrest) as the next Einstein. To his credit, he did copy the right material from the Dutch nuclear facilities - and you do have to have some smarts to copy the right material in the right way. So definitely no Einstein - but may be a James Bond? ;)

Of course, nuclear bombs are no laughing matter (unless you are Dr. Strangelove). So it was great to be reminded of Cosmos at Pharyngula this past weekend. I think this is the episode I have watched the least over the years, as it gets a little too preachy at times. But this bit is great and holds up fantastically well, even after almost 30 years! Enjoy.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Compromise on evolution teaching in classrooms

Today's Washington Post has an interesting opinion piece on the teaching of evolution in class rooms: Evolving Toward a Compromise. The key point is that simply defeating creationists efforts over and over again is not enough - in fact that can create a sense of persecution amongst those defeated (see this persecution complex in full display at Uncommon Descent). Instead, we need to understand some of their points of discomfort and, may be, compromise on some aspects not related to science. This is a good tactical move. I don't think this will be very effective in dealing with the ID folks at the Discovery Institute or the Ken Ham type creationists, but this will resonate well with those who are not too familiar with these controversies and have many misconceptions about the evolutionary theory and end up supporting "teach the controversy" or "strength and weaknesses" brand of creationism in classrooms.
Intelligent design and previous creationist debates appear to center on where humans came from. A less public yet similarly powerful motive of activists is their belief that the materialist underpinnings of evolutionary theory harm children's values. For example, the defender of fundamentalism in the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," Williams Jennings Bryan, was motivated by his conclusion that Darwinism taught "the law of the jungle" and had led to World War I by subverting the morality of the Germans. More recently, "the Wedge," an infamous leaked strategy document of intelligent design proponents, suggests that advocates are not as concerned about the truth of evolution as they are about the underlying values they think it teaches. The paper concludes that teaching evolution leads to moral relativism. As one contemporary supporter of intelligent design put it, "Darwinian evolution tells us not only where we came from but also what behavior is natural and normative for humans. . . . Teach kids they are animals, and they'll act like animals."

We propose a compromise that would neither violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment nor limit the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Most defenders of evolution do not consider valid the critics' fears that evolution teaches values. Even so, teachers could take these concerns seriously by clarifying what evolutionary theory does not imply about values. To assuage the type of concern articulated by William Jennings Bryan, teachers could tell students that even though evolutionary science talks about the survival of the fittest organism, it is not a model for how humans should treat each other. They could explain that students should not make an "ought" about human behavior from an "is" of nature and that competition in contemporary society will not lead to increased survival rates. Moreover, they could explicitly note that just because mutations in organisms are random, it does not follow that human morality is random.

We are not asking teachers to discuss what morality should look like but, rather, to explain that morality does not logically flow from evolutionary theory. This will not allay all the fears of those who could be attracted to intelligent design. But it's understandable that parents could be concerned that evolution entices their children to think unconsciously of themselves as creatures with animalistic impulses, to lose faith in their religious traditions and to think that if the nature of animals is determined by random mutations, then morality must be random as well. Teaching consciously what evolution does not need to imply for morality recognizes these concerns and does not cross church-state separation boundaries. Furthermore, challenging students to think about the connections between science and society would promote high-quality science instruction.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Belief and Religion

Salon has an interview with James Carse, who has a new book titled, The Religious Case Against Belief. His main point is that beliefs don't have to be linked with religion, and that the only defining characteristic of religion is "longevity". Some of his ideas are interesting and some not so smart. (read the full interview here)
Carse, who's retired from New York University (where he directed the Religious Studies Program for 30 years), is out to rescue religion from both religious fundamentalists and atheists. He worries that today's religious zealots have dragged us into a Second Age of Faith, not unlike the medieval Crusaders. But he's also critical of the new crop of atheists. "What these critics are attacking is not religion, but a hasty caricature of it," he writes in his new book, "The Religious Case Against Belief."

I think the vast majority of people would say belief is at the very core of religion. How can you say religion does not involve belief?

It's an odd thing. Scholars of religion are perfectly aware that belief and religion don't perfectly overlap. It's not that they're completely indifferent to each other, but you can be religious without being a believer. And you can be a believer who's not religious. Let's say you want to know what it means to be Jewish. So you draw up a list of beliefs that you think Jews hold. You go down that list and say, "I think I believe all of these." But does that make you a Jew? Obviously not. Being Jewish is far more and far richer than agreeing to a certain list of beliefs. Now, it is the case that Christians in particular are interested in proper belief and what they call orthodoxy. However, there's a very uneven track of orthodoxy when you look at the history of Christianity. It's not at all clear what exactly one should believe.

I think this is quite reasonable. What about religion?

So what is it that holds together a belief system?

A belief system is meant to be a comprehensive network of ideas about what one thinks is absolutely real and true. Within that system, everything is adequately explained and perfectly reasonable. You know exactly how far to go with your beliefs and when to stop your thinking. A belief system is defined by an absolute authority. The authority can be a text or an institution or a person. So it's very important to understand a belief system as independent of religion. After all, Marxism and Nazism were two of the most powerful belief systems ever.

What, then, do you mean by religion?

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. Modern scholars have almost unanimously decided that there is no generalization that applies to all the great living religions. Jews don't have a priesthood. Catholics do. The prayer in one tradition is different from another. The literature and the texts are radically different from each other. So it leaves us with the question: Is there any generalization one could make about religion?

But aren't there certain core questions that religion grapples with: God or some kind of transcendent reality? Evil and the afterlife?

Well, let's talk about the five great religions: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Hinduism is 4,000 years old. Judaism is hard to date but about 3,000 years old; Buddhism 2,600; Christianity 2,000. And Islam has been with us for 14 centuries. The striking thing is that each of them has been able, over all these centuries, to maintain their identity against all kinds of challenges. Let's say you're a Muslim and you want to know what Islam is about. So you begin your inquiries and you find that as you get deeper and deeper in your studies, the questions get larger and larger. If people come to religion authentically, they find their questions not answered but expanded.

And he considers "longevity" as the only defining characteristic of religion. huh!?

In your book, you say the only defining characteristic of religion is its longevity. It has to be around for a very long time to qualify as a religion.

Exactly. That's a very interesting contrast with belief systems. Belief systems have virtually no longevity. Think of Marxism. As a serious political policy, it lasted only about 70 or 80 years. Nazism only went 12 years. And they were intense, complete, comprehensive, passionately held beliefs. But they ran out very quickly. The reason the great religions don't run out as quickly is that they're able to maintain within themselves a deeper sense of the mystery, of the unknowable, of the unsayable, that keeps the religion alive and guarantees its vitality.

Hmm...are there no reasons other than "a deeper sense of the mystery" that make a religion survive? And what length of time makes one system qualify as a religion? It appears that couple of hundred years certainly doesn't cut it (he excludes Mormonism). Would astrology qualify - its certainly older than Christianity? By the way, from his definition, science will be the only real religion left (woo hoo!) - the only problem is that he doesn't seem to be a big fan of science.

Ok, lets get to his views about the New Atheists:

Given what's happening in the world right now, do you think there's a lot at stake in how we talk about religion and belief?

Absolutely. In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that's left out is the sense of religion that I've been talking about. Instead, it's an attack on what's essentially a belief system.

Are you talking about atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?

Yes. There are several problems with their approach. It has an inadequate understanding of the nature of religion. These chaps are very distinguished thinkers and scientists, very smart people, but they are not historians or scholars of religion. Therefore, it's too easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is. That kind of critique also tends to set up a counter-belief system of its own. Daniel Dennett proposes his own, fairly comprehensive belief system based on evolution and psychology. From his point of view, it seems that everything can be explained. Harris and Dawkins are not quite that extreme. But that's a danger with all of them. To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.

Ok, now he is right on one thing: The New Atheists often don't distinguish between religion and belief. For example, Dawkins often focuses on the lack of evidence for a supernatural entity. But religions are also a social-cultural complex, where the belief in the supernatural may (or may not) be only one of the many components. So he is right in pointing out the importance of the specific god for attack rather than using "religion" as a broad term. But then he makes the same mistake of defining atheism in a narrow way that fits his own line of attack:

And yet, you've just told me that you yourself don't believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

The difference, though, is that I wouldn't call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That's a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

What?? So atheists are not "stunned by the mystery of things" or "to walk around in wonder about the universe". Has he ever read Dawkins? Or Sagan? (heck - or Einstein?) Its a shame that he is talking all about definitions, and then he comes up with such a dismal definition for atheism. Ok, so he has a bizarre idea about religion ("longevity" as the defining characteristic) and he has a terrible definition of atheism (not to mention his hostility towards a cognitive understanding of belief) - may be its a good idea to skip his book. The end of the interview is about poetry and his view that religions at their roots are inspired by poets. Ok - so this is a nice point, but it doesn't do enough to negate his views above.

You can read the full interview here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Go Archaeologists!!

Its great that archeologists are taking a preemptive stance against the possible idiocy of bombing Iran (from New Scientist):
PERSEPOLIS, once the capital of the Persian empire, and the massive mud-brick Bam citadel are among the nine listed World Heritage Sites in Iran. Yet leading archaeologists are urging colleagues to refuse any military requests to draw up a list of Iranian sites that should be exempted from air strikes.

"Such advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military action," said a resolution agreed by the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Ireland, last week. Instead, delegates were advised to emphasise the harm that any military action would do to Iran's people and heritage.

And not that it matters much even when they cooperate:

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, bombing damaged important monuments, including the Al-Zohur Palace in Baghdad, and museums and archaeological sites were later looted - even though archaeologists had been consulted in advance. "If these archaeologists had little impact in terms of saving even the few selected archaeological sites listed, what did they achieve?" asks Yannis Hamilakis of the University of Southampton, UK.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ecological ethics and the interconnectedness of species

I had earlier posted news about the call for rights for apes (also see here). Here is a post from Done and Progress that takes another look at the interconnectedness of species:
But we can defend the value of interconnectedness without all that talk about substances by taking a more naturalistic turn. First, we have some biological similarity with other beings. This is closest with other primates, mammals, and then spreads out from there. We are also increasingly concerned with sustainable development, partially because we’re starting to realize (as a political whole, hopefully), that our lifestyle depends upon a better stewardship of the resources we use to maintain those lifestyles. As our interests are similar to the interests of some other creatures on the planet, and also tied up within the interests of other non-human beings, it makes sense pragmatically to place more value on how our goods are tied up with the goods of non-humans. If we want better lifestyles for increasing numbers of people, it seems like this is a value that will help us achieve that goal.
Read the full post here.

Dawkins on Al-Jazeera

Here is an interesting combination (hat tip to

Too bad, Harun Yahya's name wasn't mentioned. It would have been cool to see Dawkins go after him on Al-Jazeera.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Understanding the influence of doubt on religion

Here is an interesting article that looks at the role and influence of uncertainty and doubt on religion in the US. The interesting thing is that it makes an effort to mine data from the recently conducted United States Religious Landscape Study to test competing hypotheses: Is doubt (and uncertainty) of modern age causing the retreat of faith or is it forming a strong modified faith with its roots in doubt:
But the idea that contemporary faith, at least in the economically developed West, is shadowed by uncertainty on a new and different scale begs for some empirical investigation. Is such a doubt-haunted belief merely the intermediate stage in that slow retreat of the “Sea of Faith” that Matthew Arnold lamented in “Dover Beach,” and that has left much of Western Europe with little more than a veneer of cultural or nostalgic religiosity? Call this the familiar transition hypothesis.

Or is there a newly emergent faith that is deep and constant, marked by familiar forms of prayer and practice, but nonetheless alert to, perhaps even enlivened by, the whisper saying, “I am convinced I’m right but I could be wrong”? That would be a faith lived, to use a favorite phrase of Professor Taylor, “in a different register.” Call this the new steady-state hypothesis.

Here is the set-up for the hypotheses:

At first glance, the latest findings from the United States Religious Landscape Study, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, promise a way of examining those alternatives. This survey of more than 35,000 Americans asked people not only whether they believed in “God or a universal spirit” (92 percent did), but also whether the believers were “absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain.” While 71 percent replied “absolutely certain,” a sizable portion (17 percent) fell into the “fairly certain” category.

What if one explored this latter group’s answers to other survey questions? How important, for example, was religion in their lives? How often did they pray or attend worship services? How convinced were they that there would be life after death?

From the start, one could suppose that the fairly certain would prove less devout or observant on such measures than the absolutely certain. At least some of the fairly certain, it can be assumed, are people in transit, shifting toward disbelief and already distancing themselves from traditional religious life.

Nonetheless, if it turned out that the answers of the fairly certain came even close to those of the absolutely certain, it would confirm the idea of a stable strata of deeply committed, actively practicing religious believers who have also integrated a significant degree of doubt and uncertainty into their faith.

And it seems that the transition hypothesis comes out stronger from the dats:

In most cases the fairly certain believers were closer in attitude and observance to those saying they were not certain.

For example, 71 percent of absolutely certain believers considered religion “very important” in their lives; only 22 percent of the fairly certain did.

Strike 1 against the new steady-state hypothesis.

But the Pew survey also asked those who believed in God whether their view of God was more like “a person with whom people can have a relationship” or “an impersonal force.”

Obviously, religious practices like worship and prayer usually assume a God who has relationships with people. So what if one limited the comparisons between absolutely certain and fairly certain believers to ones who, in both cases, also described their view of God as “personal”?

In this case, the gap between the two groups closes — but only modestly. Strike 2 against the steady-state hypothesis.

Way to go transition hypothesis! Read the full article here.

P.S. Also check out the video of Hampshire College Science & Religion Lecture on Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Science of wrinkles and religion

I must say that posting stories for this blog is really introducing me to much diverse examples of science & religion issues. Here is a case in point: What kind of products are ok for wrinkle treatments? Apparently, Botox is fine. However, there is now a new product called Evolence that is making things more complicated:
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved Evolence, from OrthoNeutrogena, a part of Johnson & Johnson, as an injectable material to treat facial wrinkles. Evolence, made in Israel, is made by extracting, purifying and stabilizing collagen from the tendons of food-grade pigs.
Evolence, unlike antiwrinkle shots made using cow collagen, does not require an allergy test. But here’s the wrinkle: are swine shots kosher?

A-ha! Good question. I guess as long as any of that material does not leak into your bloodstream, you are ok. It appears that it may be alright in any case:

Judaism prohibits eating pig products. But other uses of porcine material — like tossing around footballs — are permitted, said Rabbi Edward I. Reichman, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

Dr. Reichman added that porcine beauty shots per se would not violate Jewish dietary laws. But such injections could provide fodder for an ongoing debate about whether Jews are permitted to take health risks for cosmetic procedures.

What about for Muslims? After all, pig-related issues are one of those few things that Muslims and Jews usually agree about. So is Evolence halal?

Islam can sometimes be tolerant of cosmetic surgery but prohibitive when it comes to porcine products, said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“In the Middle East, even men go for the fixing of the nose,” he said. “That is allowed.”

But Shariah, Islamic law, forbids the use of any kind of porcine product, ingested or otherwise, unless it is medically necessary, he said.

The medical exception is/(will be) specially important for debates over xenotransplantation. And as for wrinkles, it is down to botox for Muslims. Read the full article here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Saying goodbye to "Darwinism"

Absolutely fantastic blog-post from Olivia Judson, Lets Get Rid of Darwinism. If you have time, please read the full article.

Talking about Darwin's contributions she writes:
In short, Darwin did more in one lifetime than most of us could hope to accomplish in two. But his giantism has had an odd and problematic consequence. It’s a tendency for everyone to refer back to him. “Why Darwin was wrong about X”; “Was Darwin wrong about Y?”; “What Darwin didn’t know about Z” — these are common headlines in newspapers and magazines, in both the biological and the general literature. Then there are the words: Darwinism (sometimes used with the prefix “neo”), Darwinist (ditto), Darwinian.

Why is this a problem? Because it’s all grossly misleading. It suggests that Darwin was the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, of evolutionary biology, and that the subject hasn’t changed much in the 149 years since the publication of the “Origin.”

He wasn’t, and it has. Although several of his ideas — natural and sexual selection among them — remain cornerstones of modern evolutionary biology, the field as a whole has been transformed. If we were to go back in a time machine and fetch him to the present day, he’d find much of evolutionary biology unintelligible — at least until he’d had time to study genetics, statistics and computer science.
I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.

It does not. In the years ahead, I predict we will continue to refine our understanding of natural selection, and continue to discover new ways in which it can shape genes and genomes. Indeed, as genetic data continues to flood into the databanks, we will be able to ask questions about the detailed workings of evolution that it has not been possible to ask before.

This is also important as the term Darwinism sometimes gets associated with things that are completely unrelated to evolutionary biology, yet the connection is used in popular debates over creationism/evolution. In fact, a favorite strategy of creationists like Harun Yahya, is to link Darwinism with atheism, secularism, and even with terrorism and racism (and some other isms that I'm forgetting right now) to argue for the rejection of the biological theory.

Lets say goodbye to Darwinism. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The use of satellite imagery in detecting human rights violations

Here is a slightly different take on science and religion: the use of satellite imagery to look for violence targeted against specific ethnic groups - Somali Muslims, in this particular case:
An analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery by AAAS has helped confirm evidence that the Ethiopian military has attacked civilians and burned towns and villages in eight locations across the remote Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia.

The images and analysis provided crucial corroboration for a 130-page report released today in Nairobi, Kenya, by Human Rights Watch following a four-month investigation, which also used eyewitness accounts to demonstrate the attacks on tens of thousands of ethnic-Somali Muslims living in the East African country.

The before and after image is below and you can find an annotated image here.

before (Sept 2005)

after (Feb 2008)

Lars Bromley, project director for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), obtained and analyzed several "before" and "after" satellite images of villages identified by Human Rights Watch as possible locations of human rights violations. Of the imaged sites, eight bore signs consistent with the attacks described, primarily in villages and small towns in the Wardheer, Dhagabur, and Qorrahey Zones.

"This use of geospatial technologies demonstrates how science and technology can enhance human rights documenting and reporting," said SHRP Director Mona Younis. "AAAS, along with other organizations, is committed to identifying and developing new and practical science-based solutions to human rights challenges, and our geospatial technologies work is one example of that."

This is very useful and this technique has been used before in documenting human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, Burma, Chad, and the Darfur region of Sudan. Read the full article here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

More on the call for rights for apes

I had earlier posted about the Spanish parliament's call for rights to freedom and life for apes. Today's NYT has an editorial about the possible implications of such a decision:

Strip away the goofier rhetoric of the ape-rights activists, and their claim is straightforward. Great apes are biologically very close to humans; chimps and humans share about 98 percent of their DNA. Apes have complex communication skills and close emotional bonds. They experience loneliness and sorrow. They deserve some respect.

It sounds odd to say that apes have rights — or to call a chimpanzee a “person.” As a legal matter, though, it is not such a stretch. People in irreversible comas have rights. Even corporations are recognized as “persons,” with free speech and equal protection rights, and the ability to sue and be sued.

And to answer those critics (see Dembski) who feel that giving rights to apes will somehow diminish the special status of humans:
Critics object that recognizing rights for apes would diminish human beings. But it seems more likely that showing respect for apes would elevate humans at the same time.

American law is becoming increasingly cruel. The Supreme Court recently ruled that states are not obliged to administer lethal injections in ways that avoid unnecessary risk that inmates will suffer great pain. If apes are given the right to humane treatment, it just might become harder to deny that same right to their human cousins.

Read the full editorial here. Yesterday, there was another article that addressed this issue:

What’s intriguing about the committee’s action is that it juxtaposes two sliding scales that are normally not allowed to slide against each other: how much kinship humans feel for which animals, and just which “human rights” each human deserves.

We like to think of these as absolutes: that there are distinct lines between humans and animals, and that certain “human” rights are unalienable. But we’re kidding ourselves.

In an interview, Mr. Singer described just such calculations behind the Great Ape Project: he left out lesser apes like gibbons because scientific evidence of human qualities is weaker, and he demanded only rights that he felt all humans were usually offered, such as freedom from torture — rather than, say, rights to education or medical care.
Meanwhile, even in democracies, the law accords diminished rights to many humans: children, prisoners, the insane, the senile. Teenagers may not vote, philosophers who slip into dementia may be lashed to their beds, courts can order surgery or force-feeding.

Spain does not envision endowing apes with all rights: to drive, to bear arms and so on. Rather, their status would be akin to that of children.

Ingrid Newkirk, a founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, considers Spain’s vote “a great start at breaking down the species barriers, under which humans are regarded as godlike and the rest of the animal kingdom, whether chimpanzees or clams, are treated like dirt.”

Read the full article here. Perhaps related, perhaps not. But on the other end of the spectrum, here is an interesting article on mood altering pills for pets - dogs and cats (huh!?)

The Pope and a meteorite

This past June 30th was the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska event. So Nature dedicated several of its articles on impact craters both on Earth and on other bodies in the Solar system. But there is also an interesting commentary by historian of art, Martin Kemp, on the sculpture shown above:
Pope John Paul II, dressed in his ceremonial regalia, lies prostrate on a rich red carpet. Clinging to his crucifix crozier, he frowns with disquieting intensity, his eyes tightly shut. Nearby lies a scattering of glass shards. A chunky meteorite has plummeted from the heavens, smashed through the gallery skylight, and come to rest in the crook of his bent leg. We presume that the life-size representation shows the pontiff as dead or injured.

What are we to make of this provocative work by the Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan? The sculpture is deemed culturally important. It is of high financial value, and was sold to a private collector in 2004 for US$2.7 million. Exhibited in prestigious galleries throughout the world, it uniformly attracts media attention and religious controversy.

The message of the sculpture is not clear. But Kemp offers some possibilities:

Cattelan leaves some clues. The title, La Nona Ora, or The Ninth Hour, refers to the time of Christ's death on the cross. This representation of the death of Pope John Paul II might be an imitation of Christ's. In a typically elusive interview, Cattelan said, "I like the idea that someone is trying to save the Pope, like an upside-down miracle, coming not from the heavens but from earth". But he adds dismissively, "in the end it is only a piece of wax".

We may add gloss to his statement by saying that the death of a martyr involves human agency, followed by divine redemption, whereas Cattelan's Pope has been struck down by heavenly intervention and awaits earthly assistance. Our responses can range from seeing the image as moving and pious, evoking our sympathy with him as a modern martyr, to regarding it as shockingly blasphemous.

This is an interesting take on the sculpture and I like the idea of an upside-down miracle. Kemp goes on to provide two more possible interpretations, but they seem to be a bit too far-fetched (yeah...says me - with absolutely no knowledge of art or art history :) ):

My mind turns to the stone of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the focus of supreme devotion for Muslims, which is said to have been presented to Abraham by the Archangel Gabriel. It has been interpreted as a meteorite. Could Cattelan be alluding to the potential collapse of Christianity in the face of Islamic militancy? This would be inflammatory to both religions. However, it is the nature of art that the beholder completes the meaning of the artist's creation. Cattelan invites us to do so in extreme and contradictory terms.

Aware of the recent assaults on religion by scientific atheists, some people may even be tempted to see the felled Pope as an allegory of the conflict between extreme Darwinists and spiritual belief.
Hmm...or how about the conflict between an earlier Pope and Galileo - as meteorite would be a perfect sign for astronomy and the felled Pope would stand for the subsequent decline of influence of religion over explanations of the natural world. I think I still like the idea of an upside-down miracle.

Read the full article here (you may need access to the Journal).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Schools or Missiles?

I haven't read Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea - but I've only heard great things about it. Nicholas Kristof in today's NYT writes about the phenomenal effort of Mortenson in building schools in the tribal areas of Pakistan (and Afghanistan):

Mr. Mortenson found his calling in 1993 after he failed in an attempt to climb K2, a Himalayan peak, and stumbled weakly into a poor Muslim village. The peasants nursed him back to health, and he promised to repay them by building the village a school.

Scrounging the money was a nightmare — his 580 fund-raising letters to prominent people generated one check, from Tom Brokaw — and Mr. Mortenson ended up selling his beloved climbing equipment and car. But when the school was built, he kept going. Now his aid group, the Central Asia Institute, has 74 schools in operation. His focus is educating girls.

To get a school, villagers must provide the land and the labor to assure a local “buy-in,” and so far the Taliban have not bothered his schools. One anti-American mob rampaged through Baharak, Afghanistan, attacking aid groups — but stopped at the school that local people had just built with Mr. Mortenson. “This is our school,” the mob leaders decided, and they left it intact.

Mr. Mortenson has had setbacks, including being kidnapped for eight days in Pakistan’s wild Waziristan region. It would be na├»ve to think that a few dozen schools will turn the tide in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Still, he notes that the Taliban recruits the poor and illiterate, and he also argues that when women are educated they are more likely to restrain their sons. Five of his teachers are former Taliban, and he says it was their mothers who persuaded them to leave the Taliban; that is one reason he is passionate about educating girls.

This is a remarkable story and an incredible effort. Though I should point out an irony here too. "Talib" means students - and the Taliban movement, in the mid-1990's, grew out of madrassas (schools) located in the Afghan refugee camps in the northern areas of Pakistan. The problem there was that the madrassas were/are using curricula designed in the medieval times (yes--really).

But even in the remote parts of the country, there is very positive attitude towards education - the trick is to get the right education there, and I think Mortenson (and some others) is doing that.

So I have this fantasy: Suppose that the United States focused less on blowing things up in Pakistan’s tribal areas and more on working through local aid groups to build schools, simultaneously cutting tariffs on Pakistani and Afghan manufactured exports. There would be no immediate payback, but a better-educated and more economically vibrant Pakistan would probably be more resistant to extremism.

“Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country,” says Mr. Mortenson, who is an Army veteran.

Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.

The Pentagon, which has a much better appreciation for the limits of military power than the Bush administration as a whole, placed large orders for “Three Cups of Tea” and invited Mr. Mortenson to speak.

Intriguing...establishing schools in these areas instead of bombing them. Hmm...lets see which strategy will be more effective. Read the full article here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dawkins on Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation

Harun Yahya spent thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of dollars (probably Euros) to print his magnum opus, Atlas of Creation, and then shipped it free of cost to biologists and anthropologists in US and in Europe. I did not qualify, so I got a copy compliments of Laurie Godfrey at UMass (you should check out her excellent book: Scientists confront Intelligent Design and Creationism). Indeed the atlas is beautiful - but the text is the rehashing of his usual creationist nonsense. But its actually even worse than that. Richard Dawkins just commented on few of its pages:
Given that the entire message of the book depends upon the alleged resemblance between modern animals and their fossil counterparts, I was amused, when I began flicking through at random, to find page 468 devoted to "eels", one fossil and one modern. The caption says,
There are more than 400 species of eels in the order Anguilliformes. That they have not undergone any change in millions of years once again reveals the invalidity of the theory of evolution.
The fossil eel shown may well be an eel, I cannot tell. But the modern "eel" that Yahya pictures (see left) is undoubtedly not an eel but a sea snake, probably of the highly venomous genus Laticauda (an eel is, of course, not a snake at all but a teleost fish). I have not scanned the book for other inaccuracies of this kind. But given that this was almost the first page I looked at . . . what price the main thesis of the book that modern animals are unchanged since the time of their fossil counterparts?
And Dawkins added a postcript:
I have now looked at some more pages of this preposterous book. The double page spreads on page 54-55, 368-369, and 414-415 are all labelled 'Crinoid', and all purport to show how similar ancient fossil crinoids are to modern ones. Crinoids are stalked relatives of starfish, members of the phylum Echinodermata. The three spreads have almost identical captions. Here's the one on page 54:
The 345-million-year-old crinoid fossil, identical to its living counterparts, invalidates the theory of evolution. Crinoids that have remained unchanged for 345 million years refute the theory of evolution, manifesting the creation of God as a fact.
And all three spreads show a beautiful colour photograph of modern crinoids to illustrate the point. Except that, in all three cases, the modern animal pictured is not a crinoid. It isn't even an echinoderm. It isn't even a deuterostome (the sub-kingdom to which the echinoderms, and we, belong). Zoologist readers will recognize it as a tube-dwelling annelid worm, a sabellid.
But then he concludes:
I am at a loss to reconcile the expensive and glossy production values of this book with the "breathtaking inanity" of the content . Is it really inanity, or is it just plain laziness – or perhaps cynical awareness of the ignorance and stupidity of the target audience – mostly Muslim creationists. And where does the money come from?
Read full Dawkins' comment here.

By attributing cynical awareness or laziness, I think he is giving way too much credit to Harun Yahya. If you read some of Yahya's other writings (and I've had to painfully go through some of them recently for an article) you will realize that this simply is the level of his scholarship and his thinking. There are many others in the Muslim world who are writing at the same level - none of them are scientists, let alone biologists. The reason for their success is that they write about exactly what people want to hear (hmm...would a comparison with cheezy-bad but feel-good romantic comedies work??) and throw enough sciency-sounding words to appear credible. Many of them are probably not deliberately misleading people - but they badly want to justify their beliefs through science (and reject evolution, which in their conclusion, may conflict with religion). On my visits to Pakistan, I frequently encounter people who want me (because of my astronomy background) to affirm that there is much modern astronomy in the Quran. While my answer usually (always?) disappoints them, they find the answers they are looking for in books by Maurice Bucaille, Harun Yahya, etc. But I can also totally see some of them going out and writing their own books. The purpose (including Yahya's) is straight forward religious proselitization, rather than any deep thoughts about science or nature. Yahya is the most successful amongst them because he has money for glossy books (this is especially effective as school science textbooks often are printed on low quality paper with poor color reproductions - if at all) and slick websites. You add a message that people already want to hear - and you have a recipe for success.
Also read an earlier post about Harun Yahya and the end of the world.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"The turban effect" - Media coverage and the resulting Islamophobia

So it turns out that people wearing turbans are a better target in computer games than those without turbans. It must be because it increases the cross-section of the target. On a serious note, here is an interesting study that finds that a turban or a hijab is perceived as a threat - often at a subconscious level:

A Muslim-style turban is perceived as a threat, according to a new study, even by people who don't realize they hold the prejudice, dubbed "the turban effect" by researchers.

Research volunteers played a computer game that showed apartment balconies on which different figures appeared, some wearing Muslim-style turbans or hijabs and others bare-headed. They were told to shoot at the targets carrying guns and spare those who were unarmed, with points awarded accordingly.

People were much more likely to shoot Muslim-looking characters -- men or women -- even if they were carrying an innocent item instead of a weapon, the researchers found.

"Whether they're holding a steel coffee mug or a gun, people are just more likely to shoot at someone who is wearing a turban," says author Christian Unkelbach, a visiting scholar at Australia's University of New South Wales. "Just putting on this piece of clothing changes people's behaviour."

Mr. Unkelbach largely blames one-sided media portrayals for the bias.

Hello -- yes. Have you ever seen Fox news?? But most of the people in the study didn't realize this prejudice:

In fact, the Australian study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, confirmed that people don't even realize they hold these biased views. When the true intention of the experiment was revealed, Mr. Unkelbach says participants insisted they were not prejudiced and must have reacted differently from everyone else.

"The most common response was, ‘I'm sure I didn't show that effect,'" he says."They're uncomfortable and I believe them -- people are not doing this willingly. If they could, they would control that. Here, people are almost the victims of what they are fed by their environment."

Read the full story here. And over at Guardian, Jonathan Birdwell follows up on this study and brings up an excellent point:

But before we sharpen our knives and turn on the media, it is quite possible that the "turban effect" does not reveal a deep-seated (and recently revived) prejudice, but rather our instinctual disposition towards inductive reasoning – that is, making predictions about the future on the basis of past experience. The fact remains that the attacks of 9/11, 7/7 and Madrid were committed by individuals in the name of Islam (albeit a perverted interpretation). Is it not then somewhat rational to take greater notice – even if unconsciously, as much of our instinctual reasoning takes place behind the scenes – of visual representations of Islam in the context of assessing threats, simply because the last notable large-scale incidences of violent attacks were committed by self-proclaimed Muslims?

The only problem, of course, is that none of these men were wearing turbans during their respective attacks, or in their portrayal in the media. Not only that, even though inductive reasoning forms the basis of our everyday reasoning, it is often fallacious, and in the current context it could prove particularly pernicious, if it leads to such simple and unthinking connections.

Ultimately, whatever Unkelbach's experiment may reveal about our prejudices or the structure of human rationality, it at least brings our unconscious prejudices and implicit assumptions to our attention. Only then might we begin to understand them and move beyond them.

Actually it will be interesting to see how Muslims (both in the West and in pre-dominantly Muslim countries) fare in this computer game (I don't know if there were any in the study). That will at least neutralize the cultural-prejudice variable and may isolate the impact of media coverage. And I'm note sure about the results. Actually I remember flying soon after the 9/11 attacks, and I saw two guys with long beards (disctinctly Muslim) boarding the plane. And my first thoughts were, "I hope they have been thoroughly vetted by the security". Of course, I laughed soon after realizing that many must be thinking the same about me - even without a beard. Any way, this is an interesting study.

So the moral of the story is that if a researcher asks you play a video game, just stick with Pac Man - or if you do want to shoot at something, try Space Invaders - who cares about those aliens (oh great - did I really date myself badly here??).

Monday, July 07, 2008

PZ Myers on Point of Inquiry - Part 2

Here is the second part of the Point of Inquiry interview with PZ Myers (first part here). The problem is again about making atheism and evolution almost synonymous with each other (or worse, creating an impression that science necessarily leads to atheism). DJ Grothe does a good job here of pushing Myers on the mixing of the messages of spreading science with spreading atheism and its effects on the National Center for Science Education. I do completely agree with PZ Myers' views about Expelled and how they truly misled people into giving interviews about science & religion interaction and then inserting those clips into a movie about ID. This is a good interview - if you have half an hour, give it a listen.

Here is the description of the program:
In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, P.Z. Myers details his expulsion from a screening of Expelled, Ben Stein's documentary which claims that the scientific community is limiting academic freedom by not allowing Intelligent Design to be taught or discussed in the schools. He explains the background of how he and other scientists were invited to appear in the film under false pretenses, and what his response has been. He addresses "focus groups" and other marketing methods for finding the best way to communicate science to the public. Calling himself part of the "radical fringe," he elaborates on his view that leading science organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement for Science and the National Academies of Science are "playing a shell game" on the public when it comes to teaching the compatibility of science with religion, arguing instead that there is a direct link between science education and religious skepticism. And he also shares his thoughts about the future of the atheist and rationalist movement in the United States.
Listen to the podast here.

Science movies summarized in a sentence

Yes, I have a difficult time justifying this article on a science & religion blog. But then its by Steve Mirsky, whose articles in Scientific American are quite funny (yes, he often provides a full dose of geek humor).
Anyway, I was channel surfing recently and happened on a listing for one of the lesser works in the fly chronicles, the 1965 Curse of the Fly. (Which starred Brian Donlevy. Who in real life was the stepfather of Bela Lugosi, Jr. Which is mixing apples and oranges. If by apples you mean flies and by oranges you mean bats.) And I became intrigued by the short description of Curse of the Fly that appeared on the screen when I hit the info button on the remote: "A mad scientist tries out a molecular disintegrator on people but cannot get the hang of it."

It occurred to me that other sci-fi and fantasy movies also require terse synopses for the channel-surfing community. Here then is a selection of such possible descriptions:

2001: A Space Odyssey
A slab of onyx and a singing computer get two astronauts in hot water.

A feisty cat survives tense times onboard a spaceship.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
A drifter helps an old man with his math problems.

You should explore the full list of movies in his article. But here are the last few films he mentions:

Iron Man
An arms manufacturer finds himself neck-deep but gets a leg up and heads home.

The Matrix
A man discovers his true destiny.

Star Wars
An adolescent discovers his true destiny.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
A boy discovers his true destiny.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
A hobbit discovers his true destiny.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
A sad sack seeks a way to turn back time so he can live in the Dark Ages.

Ha! Can't be more accurate than this...and the last film provides a perfect cover for this article to be included on this blog.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

An ancient tablet and the idea of resurrection

When it comes to religions, there are no copyrights. It is no surprise that the surrounding cultures, religions and prevailing customs provide much of the foundation material for new religions (for example, 20th century religions, Scientology and Raelians, have their religious narratives rooted in modern popular culture and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Turning back 2000 years, here is an interesting article about an ancient tablet that shows that the idea of a Messiah who will rise from the dead after three days may have pre-dated Jesus:
A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era — in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.

It seems that the text on the tablet is from the late first century BC, and perhaps refer to the political climate after the death of King Herod in 4BC:

Mr. Knohl is part of a larger scholarly movement that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus’ day as an important explanation of that era’s messianic spirit. As he notes, after the death of Herod, Jewish rebels sought to throw off the yoke of the Rome-supported monarchy, so the rise of a major Jewish independence fighter could take on messianic overtones.

In Mr. Knohl’s interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to the first-century historian Josephus. The writers of the stone’s passages were probably Simon’s followers, Mr. Knohl contends.

The slaying of Simon, or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, he says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet — “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” — and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.

And here is where it connects to the larger picture:

Mr. Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

But there was, he said, and “Gabriel’s Revelation” shows it.

“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.”

Academically, this is an interesting story and reminded me of the discovery and the translation of The Gospel of Judas, that challenged the standard narrative about the betrayal of Judas. But I can see why it may also ruffle some feathers.

Read the full story here.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Nuclear physicist sues over revoked security clearance we are at a stage now that if you are a physicist with origins from a Muslim country, you have to be careful in what you say in the US (phew...I'm glad I didn't go into supernovae research - "what? You are studying the biggest explosions in the universe...AND you are from Pakistan??"). So here is a news item about a lawsuit filed in response to a move by the Deprtment of Energy to revoke the security clearance of a nuclear physicist:
An Egyptian-born nuclear physicist who worked in a government-financed laboratory here for 18 years filed a lawsuit on Thursday saying the Energy Department had revoked his security clearance because of his ethnicity, his Muslim faith and comments he made criticizing the war in Iraq.

The physicist, Abdel Moniem Ali el-Ganayni, 57, lost his job shortly after his clearance was revoked in May by Jeffrey F. Kupfer, the Department of Energy’s acting deputy secretary, who cited “national security” in refusing to reveal what led to the revocation.

“Our contention is that the reason the D.O.E. invoked national security here was to relieve themselves of the responsibility of having to tell us what’s going on,” said Witold Walczak, one of Dr. Ganayni’s lawyers and legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Ganayni became a naturalized citizen in 1988, eight years after coming to Pittsburgh to get a master’s degree and a doctorate. His former employer, the Bettis Laboratory, has said it would rehire him if his clearance was restored.

I don't know any details beyond this news story, but here is the claim from the lawsuit:

In the lawsuit, Dr. Ganayni, who has been married to an American woman for 26 years, claims violation of his rights to free speech and religion and to equal protection and due process. He asks that he have a chance to contest the revocation of his security clearance before an impartial hearing officer.

In a statement on Thursday, the Energy Department said, “This is a personal security matter as to which the department has no public comment.”

Dr. Ganayni’s clearance was first suspended, and he was assigned to a lower-paying job, in October 2007, after an interview with an Energy Department agent and a security officer at the laboratory, which works on nuclear propulsion projects for the Navy.

He said that during that three-hour interview and a four-hour interview with the F.B.I. two weeks later, he was asked about his religious beliefs, money he has sent overseas and comments he made in 2006 at a local mosque criticizing the Iraq war. But he said he was never asked about any security breaches at his job as a senior scientist at Bettis.

“What I said about the Iraq war, many Americans have said, and many senators,” he said, “But when I said this, I became like a traitor. That’s not right.”

Yikes - if the claim is accurate. Read the full story here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Rights for apes threaten Dembski's uniqueness

First Spain won the Euro Cup, and now their parliament is calling for rights to life and freedom for apes. This is very cool!
Spain's parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.
Parliament's environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.

The new resolutions have cross-party or majority support and are expected to become law and the government is now committed to update the statute book within a year to outlaw harmful experiments on apes in Spain.

Read the full story here.

And of course, Bill Dembski, the brave protector of human uniqueness is not too happy:

Here is one consequence of evolution being used to justify strict continuity between humans and other forms of life. Discovery Institute’s persistent stress on humans being made in the image of God and that not being a privilege extended to the rest of the animal world makes more and more sense. This action in Spain may for now seem benign, but I sense lunacy around the corner.

Oh no. Stop this madness. Evolution is making us see that all life on Earth is connected to one another and that is making us sensitive to other species.