What are the fundamentals of evolutionary biology?

Source:WhyEvolution is true

Author: Matthew Cobb

Emphasis Mine

Dan Graur, who is Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston,  describes himself on Tw*tter as “A Very Angry Evolutionary Biologist, a Very Angry Liberal, and an Even Angrier Art Lover”. His Tumblr says he ‘has a very low threshold for hooey, hype, hypocrisy, postmodernism, bad statistics, ignorance of population genetics and evolutionary biology masquerading as -omics, and hatred of any kind.’
Anyway, yesterday he tw**eted a link to a document containing what he called ‘All of evolutionary biology in 12 paragraphs, 237 words and 1,318 characters’. Here they are for your delectation. I’ve made some comments at the end – feel free to chip in (you too, Dan!).
1.Evolutionary biology is ruled by handful of logical principles, each of which has repeatedly withstood rigorous empirical and observational testing.
2. The rules of evolutionary biology apply to all levels of resolution, be it DNA or morphology.
3. New methods merely allow more rapid collection or better analysis of data; they do not affect the evolutionary principles.
4. The only mandatory attribute of the evolutionary processes is a change in allele frequencies.
5. All novelty in evolution starts as a single mutation arising in a single individual at a single time point.
6. Mutations create equivalence more often than improvement, and functionlessness more often than functionality.

7. The fate of mutations that do not affect fitness is determined by random genetic drift; that of mutations that do affect fitness by the combination of selection and random genetic drift.

8. Evolution occurs at the population level; individuals do not evolve. An individual can only make an evolutionary contribution by producing offspring or dying childless.
9. The efficacy of selection depends on the effective population size, an historical construct that is different from the census population size, which is a snapshot of the present.
10. Evolution cannot create something out of nothing; there is no true novelty in evolution.
11. Evolution does not give rise to “intelligently designed” perfection. From an engineering point of view, most products of evolution work in a manner that is suboptimal.
12. Homo sapiens does not occupy a privileged position in the grand evolutionary scheme.
I think the main thing that’s not quite right about this is 5, “All novelty in evolution starts as a single mutation arising in a single individual at a single time point”. While this is essentially true, it misses out two of the most significant novelties in the history of life, which were not created by mutation, but instead by instances of predation that went wrong and instead produced symbiosis, with one kind of cell living inside another.

The first such event took place around 2 billion years ago, somewhere in the ocean. Prior to that moment, all life had consisted of small organisms called prokaryotes which had no cell nucleus or mitochondria (these are the tiny cellular structures that help provide you and me and giraffes and mushrooms with energy). Everything changed when one unicellular life-form, known as an achaebacterium, tried to eat another, called a eubacterium. On this one occasion the eubacterium survived inside its would-be predator and became trapped, losing many of its genes to its host and eventually turning into a molecular powerhouse – the mitochondrion – that produced energy from chemical reactions and was used by the new eukaryotic cell. These new eukaryotic life-forms were a weird hybrid, composed of two different organisms. They were our ancestors.

A second, similar, event occurred around a billion years ago, when a eukaryotic cell, complete with mitochondria, engulfed a eubacterium that had long ago evolved the trick of acquiring energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis. Predation went wrong again, and another form of symbiosis eventually appeared. This gave rise to algae and eventually plants, in which small organelles called chloroplasts, the descendants of the intended eubacterial victim, turn light into energy for the benefit of the eukaryotic host.

What happened after these events took place was entirely down to natural selection, following the kind of processes that Dan describes above. But the source of the novelty – and pace his point 10 above, these were truly novel organisms – was not mutation, but an incredibly unlikely pair of events.

It is striking that these two acts of predation gone wrong were able to open up the potential of life in ways that genetic mutation + natural selection have not been able to do in 3.5 billion years of evolution. Life on Earth without mitochondria – prokaryotic life – is limited to the microscopic because of the physical limits imposed on the transport of matter, energy and information from the environment into the inside of the organism. In the absence of an additional, powerful energy source, prokaryotic life cannot carry out those operations beyond certain tiny physical dimensions. The co-option of the energy-producing mitochondria first enabled eukaryotic cells to grow large, and then, eventually, to become multicellular. Mutation and natural selection were not able to do this. Similarly, no eukaryotic organism has on its own mastered the trick of evolving photosynthesis; the only way the ancestors of plants were able to do this was through symbiosis with photosynthetic bacteria.

 

See:https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/what-are-the-fundamentals-of-evolutionary-biology/

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Twelve Days of Evolution: #1: What’s evolution?

By: why Evolution is true

Emphasis Mine

I’ve just noticed that this is post #12,002 since we began nearly six years ago. That’s a lot of posts!

“It’s okay to be smart” and PBS are producing a series of short videos, “Twelve days of evolution.” I’ll put up one a day, which should ultimately take us close to the end of Coynezaa.

This first one explains what evolution is. There are a few problems, though: it conflates evolution with natural selection (you can have common ancestry without natural selection), it equates natural selection with differential survival (actually, the differential reproduction of genes, whose vehicles are organisms, is the key), it doesn’t define “allele”, and there’s a long blurb for Dropbox at the end.

To me, the modern theory of evolution is as follows, and this is what I’d prefer to have seen in the video:

  • Evolution occurs, and by that we mean genetic change in populations.
  • That change is usually gradual, i.e., substantial change requires lots of time: more than just a generation or two. What evolves are populations of organisms, not an individual itself.
  • A lineage can not only change, but split, producing new species and new lineages.
  • (Flip side of the previous): If you take any two species or individuals, you can go back in time to find their common ancestor. The more recently in time that that ancestor existed, the more closely related the species. All living species descend from a single form of life that lived between three and four billion years ago.
  • The only process that can produce the appearance of design that so amazes and delights us is natural selection: the differential ability of genes to get themselves copied into the next generation. But there are also processes beyond natural selection that cause evolution, including genetic drift. Those processes, however, don’t cause adaptation.

see:https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/twelve-days-of-evolution-1-whats-evolution/

 

BuzzFeed compilation: How do atheists find meaning in life?

Source: Why Evolution is True

Emphasis Mine

Author Tom Chivers sometimes writes at Buzzfeed, where he’s a welcome exception to the usual clickbait-compilers at that site (see my post on his nice article  about how doctors would like to die). His latest effort involved interviewing several of us heathens about how nonbelievers find meaning in life. As you well know, theists seem deeply puzzled by this question, a sign that they can’t think outside the God Box, and can’t even see what’s around them.

Chivers’s piece, “I asked atheists how they find meaning in a purposeless universe,” surveys a broad spectrum of scientists, writers, and humanists. The answers, I hope, will put an end to this persistent and annoying question. Here’s my answer, which was given by phone so is a bit choppy:

Jerry Coyne, evoutionary biologist and author of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible:

“The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.

“If you’re an atheist and an evolutionary biologist, what you think is, I’m lucky to have these 80-odd years: How can I make the most of my existence here?Being an atheist means coming to grips with reality. And the reality is twofold. We’re going to die as individuals, and the whole of humanity, unless we find a way to colonise other planets, is going to go extinct. So there’s lots of things that we have to deal with that we don’t like. We just come to grips with the reality. Life is the result of natural selection, and death is the result of natural selection. We are evolved in such a way that death is almost inevitable. So you just deal with it.

It says in the Bible that, ‘When I was a child I played with childish things, and when I became a man I put away those childish things.’ And one of those childish things is the superstition that there’s a higher purpose. Christopher Hitchens said it’s time to move beyond the mewling childhood of our species and deal with reality as it is, and that’s what we have to do.”

The subtitle of Chivers’s piece is “If there’s no afterlife or reason for the universe, how do you make your life matter? Warning: the last answer may break your heart.” So of course I’ll put up the last answer:

Jan Doig [JAC: I’m not sure who she is, but she’s wonderfully eloquent]:

“Three years and nine months ago I would have declared myself agnostic. Then my husband died without warning at the age of 47. My life fell to pieces. This is no exaggeration. As the terrible days passed in a fog the same question kept forming. Why? Why him? Why us? I was told by well-meaning friends that it was part of God’s plan and we would simply never know what that was. Or from friends with a looser definition of religion, that The Universe had something to teach me. I had lessons to learn.

These thoughts caused me great fear, anger and confusion. What sort of God, even if he had a plan for me, would separate a fine. kind, gentle man from his children. Why would God or the Universe look down and pick on our little family for special treatment? Why a good man with not a bad bone in his body who had never raised a hand to anyone. My best friend for 29 years. Any lesson the Universe had to teach me I would have learned willingly. He didn’t have to die!

“I thought about it a lot. I was raised Catholic so guilt ran through me like writing through a stick of rock. Had I been a bad wife? Was he waiting for me? There were days when if I had been certain of a belief in an afterlife I might have gone to join him. It was a desperate time. I needed evidence and there simply wasn’t any. I just had to have faith and believe.

“One day as I was sitting on his memorial bench in the local park I suddenly thought: what if no one is to blame? Not God. Not me. Not the Universe. What if he’s gone and that’s all there is to it? No plan. Just dreadful circumstances. A minor disturbance in his heart lead to a more serious and ultimately deadly arrhythmia and that killed him in a matter of moments. It is a purely scientific view of it. I may seem cold or callous but I found comfort in that. I cried and cried and cried, but that made logical sense to me and brought me great peace.

[JAC: This reminds me of Christopher Hitchens’s statement after his diagnosis of cancer. As he said at the time, “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”]

“My heart and head still miss my husband every day. I treasure everything he gave me and I love him as much today as the day he died. But I can remember him happily without wondering what we had done to deserve this dreadful separation.

“So I declare myself atheist (and humanist by extension) and my friends shake their heads. I stay on the straight and narrow without the guiding hand of a creator or any book of instructions.

“I’m not a religious or a spiritual person. (For some reason many of my female friends are shocked by this admission!) I don’t believe in God or the Universe. I don’t believe in angels, the power of prayer, spirits, ghosts or an afterlife. The list goes on and on. I think there is a scientific meaning for everything even if we don’t understand it yet. I find meaning in every day things and I choose to carry on.

“The sun comes up and I have a chance to be kind to anyone who crosses my path because I can. I make that choice for myself and nobody has to tell me to do it. I am right with myself. I try my best to do my best, and if I fail, I try againtomorrow. I support myself in my own journey through life. I draw my own conclusions.

I find joy in the people I love. I love and I am loved. I find peace in the places I visit. Cry when I listen to music I love and find almost child like joy in many things.This world is brilliant and full of fascinating things. I have to think carefully for myself. I don’t have to believe what I’m told. I must ask questions and I try and use logic and reason to answer them. I believe that every human life carries equal worth. I struggle with how difficult the world can be but when we have free will some people will make terrible decisions. No deity forces their hand and they must live with that.

“Life is a personal struggle. Grieving is never an easy road to travel. It’s painful and lonely at times but I use what I know to try to help when I can. I try to be loving and caring with my family and friends and have fun. I will cry with friends in distress and hear other people’s stories and be kind because it does me good as well. I listen and I learn. It helps me to be better. Life without God is not a life without meaning. Everything, each and every interaction is full of meaning. Everything matters.”

Among the others interviewed are Susan Blackmore, Gia Milinovich, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Adam Rutherford. There’s a commonality among the answers—I’d like to echo Darwin in saying that “there is a grandeur in this view of life”—and the common theme is that we all recognize that there is no ultimate purpose or meaning of life, at least in the theists’ cosmic sense, but that we find meaning in our activities and relationships.

That’s not much difference from how theists find meaning in their quotidian life; note the convergence between what many of the atheists consider their “purpose” (“Be kind to loved ones and strangers”, “Do something good for society”) and the so-called Meaning Given by God. In the end, the quotidian life is all we have.

Chivers’a article should be bookmarked as the definitive response to a nonsensical question that religionists raise time and time again. They may not like the answers, but, given what we know about the universe, they happen to be true.

 

see: http://wp.me/ppUXF-CLA

Neil deGrasse Tyson Squashes Creationist Argument Against Science on National TV

The evolution of humans anc culture

The evolution of humans anc culture

Source: AlterNet

Author: Dan Arel

“Episode two of “Cosmos,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, aired this week. Toward the end of the program, Tyson made one of the best statements one could hope would sink into the minds of young and old viewers alike and—most importantly—creationists.

The astrophysicist proclaimed that there is no shame in admitting you do not know something and that the real shame is pretending to know everything.

Just as we saw Ken Ham do when debating evolution with Bill Nye, Ham was able to claim he knew everything Nye honestly claimed he did not know by simply saying, “Bill, I do know how X happened, it’s all explained in this book,” referencing the Bible. Ham is ashamed about the fact that he cannot admit what he does not know. Instead, he would rather go on pretending to know things he does not know, which is the definition of faith.

Ham even claimed he believes in his views so strongly that nothing can change his mind — a sure sign of someone who believes to know things they do not know and does not care about finding the truth, only sticking to what he wants to believe.

During this week’s episode, Tyson discussed the evolution of the eye, something declared for years by creationists as unexplainable by evolution, and thus evidence that life must be intelligently designed. Tyson masterfully explained how the eye evolved and how well scientists understand this evolution.

The “Cosmos” host also touched on how many species have evolved an eye, but did leave out the fact that there are over 40 known independent eye evolutions, something that very clearly discredits any intelligent design.

However, these facts mean nothing to creationists. Not long after “Cosmos” aired, Jay W. Richards, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (DI), a non-science, religious based foundation that fights to discredit evolution and replace it with faith based creationism,  tweeted:

On eye evolution, the #Cosmos editors again failed to do a Google Search[.]

Richards’ Twitter missive linked to a Discovery Institute  PDF download that supposedly debunks the evolution of the eye claim. Yet the PDF is nothing more than praise for the Christian Right pundit Ann Coulter and a lambasting of Richard Dawkins, DI’s public enemy number one.

Watching the Christian Right, especially the creationist wing, struggle to counter “Cosmos” each week is like watching a frightened, cornered animal that knows it is about to die. What else could explain the weekly grasping at straws, and the unremitting blasting of social media links meant to reel their following back in as their eyes are opened to the scientific method’s greatness.

Those like Richards, Ham and the creationist lobby will simply stop at nothing to protect the industry they have created. A series like “Cosmos” will inspire a new young group of future scientists to put down their bibles and pick up “On the Origin of Species.” Countering make-believe with facts will encourage young people to leave church and walk into a science lab, to stop putting money into coffers and instead direct their resources toward research facilities.

Creationism’s days are numbered. “Cosmos” frightens the conservatives more than anything has in a very long time. Every day their numbers grow smaller and their grasp on America becomes weaker.

The time is now for a scientifically literate America to return, for scientific innovations to flow out of our borders and spread around the world. We can no longer take a backseat to the world of science and must return once again to the driver’s seat.

“Cosmos” is just the program we need to inspire people in this country and around the world with the wonders of science. Doing so, we realize that the facts offered through the scientific method are more beautiful and satisfying than the offerings of any religion on this planet. A series like “Cosmos” shows the world that facts are always better than fairytales.

Dan Arel is a freelance writer, speaker and secular advocate who lives in San Diego, CA. Follow him on Twitter @danarel.

Emphasis Mine

See: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/neil-degrasse-tyson-squashed-creationist-argument-against-science-national-tv?akid=11610.123424.QucU1A&rd=1&src=newsletter971566&t=15

The Value of Evolution, and the Poverty of creationism

From: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/

By: Mark Trodden

“…In the example of evolution, the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind. However, here the challenge to acceptance is not one of the inaccessibility of the theory, but the implications that it has for existing powerful world views.

“On the other hand, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ramifications of natural selection are multiple. And, relatively, they are easily, if uneasily, understood: the Earth and life on it are far older than the Bible suggests. Species are not fixed entities created at one time. They rise, fall, become extinct, and there is no purpose, no forethought in these patterns. We can explain these processes now without reference to the supernatural. We ourselves are related, however distantly, to all living things. We can explain our own existence without reference to the supernatural. We may have no purpose at all except to continue. We have a nature derived in part from our evolutionary past. Underlying natural selection are physical laws. The evolved material entity we call the brain is what makes consciousness possible. When it is damaged, so is mental function. There is no evidence for an immortal soul, and no good reason beyond fervent hope that consciousness survives the death of the brain.

It is testimony to the originality as well as the diversity of our species that some of us find such ramifications horrifying, or irritating, or self-evidently untrue and (literally) soulless, while others find them both beautiful and liberating and discover, with Darwin, “grandeur in this view of life”. Either way, if we do not find our moments of exaltation in religious awe and the contemplation of a supreme supernatural being, we will find them in the contemplation of our arts and our science. When Einstein found that his general theory made correct predictions for the shift in Mercury’s orbit, he felt so thrilled he had palpitations, “as if something had snapped inside. I was,” he wrote, “beside myself with joyous excitement.” This is the excitement any artist can recognise.  This is the joy, not of simple description, but of creation. It is the expression, common to both the arts and science, of the somewhat grand, somewhat ignoble, all too human pursuit of originality in the face of total dependence on the achievements of others.”

Emphasis Mine

Are Creationist Beliefs Too Extreme for Creationists?

From Religion Dispatches

N.B.: Respect the Establishment Clause

By: Paul Wallace

“You can take it to the bank: Any species of religion that rejects the most basic products of the last 400 years of scientific inquiry, will not last. Here’s why.

The other day at HuffPo, Michael Zimmerman pointed out that, when pushed (or even gently nudged), creationist leaders such as Ken Ham and organizations such the Discovery Institute will actually disavow their own polemic. This is evidenced by the reactions of these parties to an earlier Zimmerman piece in which he made some claims about their perspectives on science. In each case they criticize Zimmerman’s claims, calling them, in effect, lies. Yet the claims themselves were neither false nor unfair nor mean-spirited.

Trying to make sense of this, Zimmerman writes,

“Creationist beliefs are even too extreme for the creationists. Those beliefs make for good copy when preaching to the faithful and when raising funds, but when those very same beliefs are presented in a broader context, they are quickly disavowed.”

This inability of Ham and the Discovery Institute to respond coherently when challenged is, in my view, symptomatic of their profound ambivalence toward science. They are smitten with science. They see how powerful a tool it is for exploring and describing the world. They want a piece of it.

But that’s all they get: a piece. Their theology, based as it is in a shallow and demonstrably false reading of scripture, just isn’t deep and wide enough to swallow all of science. So they queue up for “cafeteria science”: They like electrodynamics, they dislike evolution; Ken Ham likes relativity theory, he dislikes the big bang theory; the Discovery Institute likes the atomic theory, it dislikes natural selection. (I’m only guessing physics is OK in their books.)

They want science the way they want it, not the way it is.

But science is of a piece. This is not to say that there are not outstanding questions about the evolution the solar system (did you see this?) or about the evolution of sex, or that the integrity of every scientific theory requires the integrity of every other, or that all scientific ideas stand solid and true and indisputable. It is to say that the same spirit runs through all of it. Science is not a set of products but a way of answering certain kinds of questions, and a way of excluding certain possibilities. It is animated by a very particular spirit of inquiry.

Universal gravitation and evolution may appear to be different, and they are, but down deep their roots converge. The same spirit of curiosity that animated Newton, animated Darwin.

It is this spirit of inquiry that is at issue, not certain showpieces of scientific end-product. But it is unthinkable for Ham or the Discovery Institute to publicly reject “the spirit of inquiry,” so they focus — as they do so often — on externals, and wind up accepting only self-selected pieces of science. They are caught in the trap of idolizing science while wishing, on some level, it would just go away.

It’s not a formula for success. Whatever theology can’t expand to meet — and exceed — scientific realities, will pass away. Whatever theology can, has the hope of lasting. Both the passing away and the lasting have happened over and over and over.

It’s happening again, and this time it’s creationism that’s passing away.

Emphasis Mine

see:

From “Faith No More” Why I am an Atheist

Earlier this year, Andrew Zak Williams asked public figures why they believe in God. Now it’s the turn of the atheists – from A C Grayling to P Z Myers – to explain why they don’t.

Maryam Namazie

Human rights activist
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped believing in God. Having been raised in a fairly open-minded family in Iran, I had no encounter with Islam that mattered until the Islamic movement took power on the back of a defeated revolution in Iran. I was 12 at the time.

I suppose people can go through an entire lifetime without questioning God and a religion that they were born into (out of no choice of their own), especially if it doesn’t have much of a say in their lives. If you live in France or Britain, there may never be a need to renounce God actively or come out as an atheist.

But when the state sends a “Hezbollah” (the generic term for Islamist) to your school to ensure that you don’t mix with your friends who are boys, stops you from swimming, forces you to be veiled, deems males and females separate and unequal, prescribes different books for you and your girlfriends from those read by boys, denies certain fields of study to you because you are female, and starts killing in­discriminately, then you have no choice but to question, discredit and confront it – all of it. And that is what I did.

Philip Pullman
Author

The main reason I don’t believe in God is the missing evidence. There could logically be no evidence that he doesn’t exist, so I can only go by the fact that, so far, I’ve discovered no evidence that he does: I have had no personal experience of being spoken to by God and I see nothing in the world around me, wherever I look in history or science or art or anywhere else, to persuade me that it was the work of God rather than
of nature.

To that extent, I’m an atheist. I would have to agree, though, that God might exist but be in hiding (and I can understand why – with his record, so would I be). If I knew more, I’d be able to make an informed guess about that. But the amount of things I do know is the merest tiny flicker of a solitary spark in the vast encircling darkness that represents all the things I don’t know, so he might well be out there in the dark. As I can’t say for certain that he isn’t, I’d have to say I am an agnostic.

Kenan Malik
Neurobiologist, writer and broadcaster

I am an atheist because I see no need for God. Without God, it is said, we cannot explain the creation of the cosmos, anchor our moral values or infuse our lives with meaning and purpose. I disagree.

Invoking God at best highlights what we cannot yet explain about the physical universe, and at worst exploits that ignorance to mystify. Moral values do not come prepackaged from God, but have to be worked out by human beings through a combination of empathy, reasoning and dialogue.
This is true of believers, too: they, after all, have to decide for themselves which values in their holy books they accept and which ones they reject.
And it is not God that gives meaning to our lives, but our relationships with fellow human beings and the goals and obligations that derive from them. God is at best redundant, at worst an obstruction. Why do I need him?

Susan Blackmore
Psychologist and author
What reason for belief could I possibly have? To explain suffering? He doesn’t. Unless, that is, you buy in to his giving us free will, which conflicts with all we know about human decision-making.

To give me hope of an afterlife? My 30 years of parapsychological research threw that hope out. To explain the mystical, spiritual and out-of-body experiences I have had? No: our rapidly improving knowledge of the brain is providing much better explanations than religious reasoning. To explain the existence and complexity of the wonderful world I see around me? No – and this is really the main one.

God is supposed (at least in some versions of the story) to have created us all. Yet the Creator (any creator) is simply redundant. Every living thing on this planet evolved by processes that require no designer, no plans, no guidance and no foresight. We need no God to do this work. Where would he fit in? What would he do? And why? If he did have any role in our creation, he would have to be immensely devious, finickity, deceitful and mind-bogglingly cruel, which would be a very odd kind of God to believe in. So I don’t.

Richard Dawkins
Evolutionary biologist
I don’t believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them, and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.

Even given no evidence for specific gods, could we make a case for some unspecified “intelligent designer” or “prime mover” or begetter of “something rather than nothing”? By far the most appealing version of this argument is the biological one – living things do present a powerful illusion of design. But that is the very version that Darwin destroyed. Any theist who appeals to “design” of living creatures simply betrays his ignorance of biology. Go away and read a book. And any theist who appeals to biblical evidence betrays his ignorance of modern scholarship. Go away and read another book.

As for the cosmological argument, whose God goes under names such as Prime Mover or First Cause, the physicists are closing in, with spellbinding results. Even if there remain unanswered questions – where do the fundamental laws and constants of physics come from? – obviously it cannot help to postulate a designer whose existence poses bigger questions than he purports to solve. If science fails, our best hope is to build a better science. The answer will lie neither in theology nor – its exact equivalent – reading tea leaves.

In any case, it is a fatuously illogical jump from deistic Unmoved Mover to Christian Trinity, with the Son being tortured and murdered because the Father, for all his omniscience and omnipotence, couldn’t think of a better way to forgive “sin”.

Equally unconvincing are those who believe because it comforts them (why should truth be consoling?) or because it “feels right”. Cherie Blair [“I’m a believer”, New Statesman, 18 April] may stand for the “feels right” brigade. She bases her belief on “an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true”. She aspires to be a judge. M’lud, I cannot provide the evidence you require. My head cannot explain why, but my heart knows it to be true.

Why is religion immune from the critical standards that we apply not just in courts of law, but in every other sphere of life?

Paula Kirby
Writer

I stopped being a believer when it became clear to me that the various versions of Christianity were mutually contradictory and that none had empirical evidence to support it. From the recognition that “knowing in my heart” was an unreliable guide to reality, I began to explore other types of explanation for life, the universe and everything, and discovered in science – biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology, geology, psychology – answers that genuinely explain, as opposed to those of religion, whose aim is to shroud their lack of substance in a cloak of mystery and metaphor.

All-importantly, these scientific answers, even when tentative, are supported by evidence. That they are also far more thrilling, far more awe-inspiring, than anything religion can offer, and that I find life fuller, richer and more satisfying when it’s looked firmly in the eye and wholeheartedly embraced for the transient and finite wonder that it is, is a happy bonus.

Sam Harris
Neuroscientist

The most common impediment to clear thinking that a non-believer must confront is the idea that the burden of proof can be fairly placed on his shoulders: “How do you know there is no God? Can you prove it? You atheists are just as dogmatic as the fundamentalists you criticise.” This is nonsense: even the devout tacitly reject thousands of gods, along with the cherished doctrines of every religion but their own. Every Christian can confidently judge the God of Zoroaster to be a creature of fiction, without first scouring the universe for evidence of his absence. Absence of evidence is all one ever needs to banish false knowledge. And bad evidence, proffered in a swoon of wishful thinking, is just as damning.

But honest reasoning can lead us further into the fields of unbelief, for we can prove that books such as the Bible and the Quran bear no trace of divine authorship. We know far too much about the history of these texts to accept what they say about their own origins. And just imagine how good a book would be if it had been written by an omniscient Being.

The moment one views the contents of scripture in this light, one can reject the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam definitively. The true authors of God’s eternal Word knew nothing about the origins of life, the relationship between mind and brain, the causes of illness, or how best to create a viable, global civilisation in the 21st century. That alone should resolve every conflict between religion and science in the latter’s favour, until the end of the world.

In fact, the notion that any ancient book could be an infallible guide to living in the present gets my vote for being the most dangerously stupid idea on earth.

What remains for us to discover, now and always, are those truths about our world that will allow us to survive and fully flourish. For this, we need only well-intentioned and honest inquiry – love and reason. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.

Daniel Dennett
Philosopher

The concept of God has gradually retreated from the concept of an anthropomorphic creator figure, judge and overseer to a mystery-shrouded Wonderful Something-or-Other utterly beyond human ken. It is impossible for me to believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods, because they are simply ridiculous, and so obviously the fantasy-projections of scientifically ignorant minds trying to understand the world. It is impossible for me to believe in the laundered versions, because they are systematically incomprehensible. It would be like trying to believe in the existence of wodgifoop – what’s that? Don’t ask; it’s beyond saying.

But why try anyway? There is no obligation to try to believe in God; that’s a particularly pernicious myth left over from the days when organised religions created the belief in belief. One can be good without God, obviously.

Many people feel very strongly that one should try to believe in God, so as not to upset Granny, or so as to encourage others to do likewise, or because it makes you nicer or nobler. So they go through the motions. Usually it doesn’t work.

I am in awe of the universe itself, and very grateful to be a part of it. That is enough.

A C Grayling
Philosopher

I do not believe that there are any such things as gods and goddesses, for exactly the same reasons as I do not believe there are fairies, goblins or sprites, and these reasons should be obvious to anyone over the age of ten.

Steven Weinberg
Nobel laureate in physics
I do not believe in God – an intelligent, all-powerful being who cares about human beings – because the idea seems to me to be silly. The positive arguments that have been given for belief in God all appear to me as silly as the proposition they are intended to prove. Fortunately, in some parts of the world, religious belief has weakened enough so that people no longer kill each other over differences in this silliness.

It is past time that the human race should grow up, enjoying what is good in life, including the pleasure of learning how the world works, and freeing ourselves altogether from supernatural silliness in facing the real problems and tragedies of our lives.

Peter Atkins
Chemist

In part because there is no evidence for a God (sentimental longing, desperation, ignorance and angst are not evidence) and in part because science is showing that it is capable of answering all the questions that the religious have argued, without any evidence, require the activities of a God, I dismiss holy scripture as evidence. I also discount the argument that a majority of people in the world claim to be believers, because truth is not decided by majority vote.

I acknowledge the power of cultural conditioning, especially when it is larded on to the young and impressionable, and can even accept that there might be an evolutionary advantage in believing; but neither is an argument for the truth of the existence of a God. Moreover, the horrors of the world, both personal and societal, do not convince me that the creation is an act of infinite benevolence.

Jim al-Khalili
Theoretical physicist
It is often said that religious faith is about mankind’s search for a deeper meaning to existence. But just because we search for it does not mean it is there. My faith is in humanity itself, without attaching any metaphysical baggage.

Sir Roger Penrose
Physicist

I don’t believe in the dogmas of any religion (or any that I have ever heard of), because the associated myths sound far too fanciful and arbitrary for them to have any credibility, in my opinion. If you ask me about a belief in some more abstract notion of “God”, I would, of course, have to know what you mean by such a term.

I suppose the closest I could get to anything that bears any relation to the kind of notion that the term “God” might be used for would be something along the lines of Platonist ideals. These could include some sort of objective moral standpoint that is independent of ourselves, and not simply definable in terms of what might be of benefit to human society. This would imply, for instance, that conscious beings such as elephants would have rights, in addition to those of humans.

I am also prepared to accept that there might be objective (“Platonic”) elements involved in artistic achievement, and certainly I assign a Platonic objectivity to truth (especially unambiguous mathematical truth). But I am not at all sure that it is helpful to attach the term “God” to any of this. Moreover, thinking of God as a benevolent creator is particularly misleading, as is made clear, in my opinion, by the problem of the existence of evil – or natural, indiscriminate calamity.

If “God” is to be a sentient being of some sort, I also find that incredible. A conscious being would have to be one that I could just about imagine myself being. I certainly cannot imagine myself being “God”!

Ben Goldacre
Science writer

I think probably the main answer to your question is: I just don’t have any interest either way, but I wouldn’t want to understate how uninterested I am. There still hasn’t been a word invented for people like me, whose main ex­perience when presented with this issue is an overwhelming, mind-blowing, intergalactic sense of having more interesting things to think about. I’m not sure that’s accurately covered by words such as “atheist”, and definitely not by “agnostic”. I just don’t care.

Polly Toynbee
Journalist and president, British Humanist Association
The only time I am ever tempted, momentarily, to believe in a God is when I shake an angry fist at him for some monstrous suffering inflicted on the world for no reason whatever. The Greeks and Romans and other pagans probably produced the most convincing gods – petulant, childish, selfish – demanding sacrifices to their vanity and inflicting random furies. At least that’s a logical explanation. But an all-powerful God of goodness and love is evidently impossible. He would be a monster. Voltaire said so after the Lisbon earthquake.

Victor Stenger
Particle physicist

I not only do not believe in God, I am almost 100 per cent certain the God of Abraham worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims does not exist. This God supposedly plays such an important role in the universe that there should be evidence he exists. There is nothing in the realm of human knowledge that requires anything supernatural, anything beyond matter, to describe our observations.
Furthermore, religion is immoral. It is bad for individuals and bad for society.

Jerry Coyne
Biologist

There is simply no good data pointing to a supernatural being who either takes an interest in the world or actively affects it. Isn’t it curious that all the big miracles, resurrections and ascensions to heaven occurred in the distant past, documented by single, dubious books? Besides, the “truth claims” of the various faiths about prophets, virgin births, angels, heaven and the like are not only scientifically unbelievable, but conflicting, so that most or all of them must be wrong. To Christians, Jesus is absolutely the scion and substance of God; to Muslims, that’s blasphemy, punishable by execution.

The more science learns about the world, the less room there is for God. Natural selection dispelled the last biology-based argument for divinity – the “design” of plants and animals. Now physics is displacing other claims, showing how the universe could have begun from “nothing” without celestial help.

There’s not only an absence of evidence for God, but good evidence against him. To the open-minded, religions were clearly invented by human beings to support their fervent wishes for what they wanted to be true.

Our very world testifies constantly against God. Take natural selection, a process that is cruel, painful and wasteful. After Darwin’s idea displaced Genesis-based creationism, the theological sausage-grinder – designed to transform scientific necessities into religious virtues – rationalised why it was better for God to have used natural selection to produce human beings. Needless to say, that argument doesn’t fit with an all-loving God. Equally feeble are theological explanations for other suffering in the world. If there is a God, the evidence points to one who is apathetic – or even
a bit malicious.

To believers, testing the “God hypothesis” is not an option because they will accept no observations that disprove it. While I can imagine scientific evidence for God, even evidence that would make me a believer (a reappearing Jesus who instantly restores the limbs of amputees would do), there is no evidence – not even the Holocaust – which can dispel their faith in a good and loving God.

Stephen Hawking
Physicist

I am not claiming there is no God. The scientific account is complete, but it does not predict human behaviour, because there are too many equations to solve.One therefore uses a different model, which can include free will and God.

Michael Shermer
Publisher of Skeptic magazine
I do not believe in God for four reasons. First, there is not enough evidence for the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent being who created the universe and ourselves and hands down moral laws and offers us eternal life. Second, any such being that was supernatural would by definition be outside the purview of our knowledge of the natural world and would necessarily have to be part of the natural world if we did discover such an entity. This brings me to the third reason, Shermer’s Last Law, which is that any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God. (Because of Moore’s law [of increasing computer power] and Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns, we ourselves will be able to engineer life, solar systems and even universes, given enough time.) Fourth, there is overwhelming evidence from history, anthropology, sociology and psychology that human beings created God, not vice versa. In the past 10,000 years there have been roughly 10,000 religions and 1,000 different gods. What are the chances that one group of people discovered the One True God while everyone else believed in 9,999 false gods? A likelier explanation is that all gods and religion are socially and psychologically constructed. We created gods.

John Harris
Bioethicist

There is no good reason to believe that anything that could coherently be called God exists. A rational person does not waste time believing or even being agnostic about things that there are no good reasons to accept. Even if there was a more powerful being (or, more likely, society or planet of beings) than ourselves with a technology that could have created even our solar system and everything in it, that would not give us anything but prudential and scientific reasons to take any notice of them whatsoever – certainly no reason to worship them.

Bertrand Russell pointed out long ago that the moral character of the Judaeo-Christian God as revealed in the writings of his sycophants leaves much to be desired. The same seems to go for other gods as well. So God is not only non-existent, but also wicked and useless.

Jennifer Bardi
Editor of the Humanist
The short and easy answer is lack of evidence. I also see no value in believing in God, because if you’re thinking clearly and honestly you necessarily must face the issue of suffering, and the ensuing existential crisis wastes precious time and energy. Alleviating suffering is what we should pour our minds and hearts into.

Moreover, I simply don’t want to believe, because the notion of an all-knowing, all-seeing God who lets bad stuff happen really gives me the creeps.

Richard Wiseman
Psychologist

I do not believe in God because it seems both illogical and unnecessary. According to the believers, their God is an all-powerful and almighty force. However, despite this, their God allows for huge amounts of suffering and disease. Also, if I were to believe in God, logically speaking I would have to believe in a wide range of other entities for which there is no evidence, including pixies, goblins and gnomes, etc. It’s a long list and I don’t have room in my head for all of them. So, I am happy to believe that there is no God. We are just insignificant lumps of carbon flying through a tiny section of the universe. Our destiny is totally in our own hands, and it is up to each of us to make the best of our life. Let’s stop worrying about mythical entities and start living.

P Z Myers
Biologist

I am accustomed to the idea that truth claims ought to be justified with some reasonable evidence: if one is going to claim, for instance, that a Jewish carpenter was the son of a God, or that there is a place called heaven where some ineffable, magical part of you goes when you die, then there ought to be some credible reason to believe that. And that reason ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book.

Religious claims all seem to short-circuit the rational process of evidence-gathering and testing and the sad thing is that many people don’t see a problem with that, and even consider it a virtue. It is why I don’t just reject religion, but actively oppose it in all its forms – because it is fundamentally a poison for the mind that undermines our critical faculties.

Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because God says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with God. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a God when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren’t, a God will set you on fire for all eternity.

These are ridiculous propositions. The whole business of religion is clownshoes freakin’ moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behaviour, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an in­visible big kahuna.

It’s not just fact-free, it’s all nonsense.

Andrew Copson
Chief executive, British Humanist Association

I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses, because they are so obviously human inventions. Desert-dwellers have severe, austere and dry gods; suffering and oppressed people have loving and merciful gods; farmers have gods of rain and fruitfulness; and I have never met a liberal who believed in a conservative God or a conservative who believed in a liberal one. Every God I have ever heard of bears the indelible marks of human manufacture, and through history we can explain how and why we invented them.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Humanist, the Independent and Skeptic. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com


Emphasis Mine.

see:http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2011/07/god-evidence-believe-world