Are Religions Evolving?

Last night Dr Mike Taylor came to Malmesbury Abbey to talk about Dinosaurs and God (see pic). A self-proclaimed ‘armchair Palaeontologist’, with a PhD no less, he spends his spare time trawling through fossils in museums across the world. He has particular fondness for the long-necked dino’s called Sauropods, two of which he has been able to name – Xenoposeidon proneneukos meaning “alien earthquake god” and Brontomerus mcintoshi meaning “thunder-thighs”. These choices of names perhaps reflect his controversial belief that taxonomy is merely an art. Besides this, the reason for Mike’s talk was that he is an avid Christian who believes science and his (blind) religious faith can co-exist in harmony, and don’t contradict one another.

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Now as a scientist and definite non-believer I find his position quite baffling. I am sure that science can and does answer every single question about how life on Earth (and we humans) came to be here, so I see no need to bother with religion. Mike also fully appreciates the power of the scientific method but argues that there are some questions it cannot hope to answer – what these might be is not quite clear. He is very sure of the evolution of all animals and humans, but suggests that at some point in our relatively recent evolutionary past God recognised that we look close enough to ‘his image’ and waved his magic over us, raising us from mere animals to some higher status that we now enjoy. Mike argues that we are moral, responsible, merciful, forgiving and that these things set us apart from all other animals, contrary to the clear evidence that we are nothing more than a particularly strange ape.

I’m not trying to cause offence, but it’s hard to see why someone who accepts the evidence for evolution needs any further explanation for how and why we got here. Religion seeks to give answers to the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ of life and being human, but science adequately answers these questions; most people just don’t like to accept the answers it gives. There is no great ‘meaning’ of life, we are here by chance and the only ‘purpose’ we and all other living things have is to produce replicates of ourselves, thereby propagating our genes and outcompeting our rivals. Perhaps this truth is just too anti-climactic for most to accept and therefore religions have flourished by filling people’s need for something more. Being scientifically enlightened does not make you feel empty and meaningless; it fills one with awe, excitement and curiosity as the wonders of life itself are revealed.

As science continues its unquenchable desire to explain, it is constantly putting pressure on religious beliefs, by falsifying them. Their only strategy to survive as a religion is to adapt and admit that certain passages (more and more it would seem) are not meant to be literal historic accounts but are poetic stories with hidden messages. After countless attempts to scupper the advances of evolutionary thinking, religious groups are finally starting to accept that fighting against science is simply hopeless. The result is that people like Dr Taylor are helping to promote the marriage between science and religion. In this way they hope that their faith can continue despite the mounting evidence that there is no need for religion, as everything is comfortably explained by science. Ironically then, religions are now being forced to ‘evolve’ to stay relevant and maintain the appeal of increasingly educated people, most of whom rightly accept science as fact.

Unfortunately, religion will always be able to fall back on the personal nature of ‘belief’ and the impossibility of disproving the existence of (a) God. But with some luck and much quality education, soon parents and their children won’t see any need for religion when science can successfully explain everything there is to know about life on Earth and Homo sapiens.

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Cloning for Lay-Men and Women

How do you clone a dog like they did on the Channel 4 programme “The £60,000 Puppy: Cloning Man’s Best Friend” shown this week? It might seem obvious to some, but for the great majority cloning sounds like something out of science fiction. Let’s break it down as simply as possible. DNA is the recipe that is used by almost all of life on Earth. Every single animal that has ever lived started as a single cell and developed into an adult by following, very precisely, the instructions in its DNA. Using delicate processes scientists are now able to remove the DNA from an embryo, leaving a healthy but information-less cell. The DNA is then taken from a living individual and inserted into the empty cell, replacing that which was removed and giving it instructions to create an adult. This embryo is then implanted in a female and the pregnancy and growth begins.

So an individual’s unique DNA specifies precisely how to ‘make’ that individual from the starting point of an embryo. By replacing the recipe from one embryo with that of a living individual, a clone is produced that is essentially an identical twin, just with a different birthday to the original. This does not mean that the clone is the exact same individual – just look at typical identical twins – they are made individual by the environment they experience through their lives.

Cloning cannot recreate an individual’s personality; it cannot make a copy of a person; it cannot bring someone back from the dead or let them live forever. However, it could be used to exclusively breed the most desirable and valuable animals for agriculture, albeit at greater risk of epidemics.

Distracted by Tech: the Phonies

So I’ve recently realised some people are much less sociable in group situations than they surely were when phones weren’t quite so versatile. These people, I like to call ‘Phonies’, are constantly sidetracked by their phones; the temptations and draws of social media and nifty, ‘time-saving’, trending, gadget-like apps. Constantly engaging with dozens of little ‘helpful’ apps can save seconds and make a day run smoothly, but they come at a cost to friendly interaction. Often Phonies don’t listen to your story, thoughts or questions, they just vacantly stare at their screens instead. In extreme circumstances Phonies appear to distance themselves from the group at times by busily checking what people are tweeting about or what they’ve got up to and posted on facebook or instagram. I say it’s simply not worth it. We desperately need to be able to separate our time spent engaged with our phones and time spent fully engaged with our friends! Otherwise we’ll just continue this demise and eventually won’t be bothering to talk much at all. And it’s infuriating and boring to be around friends who are full or part-time Phonies.

I would almost go so-far as to say that I’m offended that a shiny LED screen can sway someone’s attention from talking to me. And unfortunately the rise of Phonies has the potential to spiral out of control, especially as phone use can be contagious. One person engages with their phone and others get bored/offended/jealous and soon immerse themselves in their own tech, leading to conversational inertia. And the young may be at greatest risk due to their high exposure to tablets and games at home (see this worrying article), resulting in the incomplete development of their basic abilities to socialise, befriend and network. Result: a world full of Phonies, like the two depicted below in a new piece by Banksy called “Mobile Lovers”.20140420-221508.jpg

Human Software Updates?

Will we augment ourselves and become one with machines as futurist Ray Kurzweil (pictured below) predicted many years ago for 2029? It definitely looks like it. Think about it, you already increase your social interactions on a daily basis using a handheld supercomputer. We spend huge chunks of our day browsing, checking facts and ‘socialising’ on the internet. We even have virtual versions of ourselves that allow others to meet and learn about us while we sleep. It is not a question of if we are going to become one with technology – our lives are already heavily reliant and interwoven with computers and electronics and this is only going to become more efficient and subtle. The result? Someone who looks totally normal but has the ability to draw from a vast database of knowledge and communicate online without a sweat. But we don’t seem to be able to multitask at present so I would imagine this will lead to even less attention being paid to reality, despite the intentions of more seamless usage. Let’s just hope we maintain the ability to relax and interact physically with others, else life might lose its joy.20140420-222551.jpg

Here’s a Blog

Well here we have my blog. Simon the Scientist. It’s not a joke my name’s Simon and I’m studying Biology to become a proper scientist, ya know? Got to thank N J Bankhead for that one though.
What I have to offer – a commentary on the quickly changing world that we humans are rather sketchily trying to oversee. I’m trying to make sense of it all myself, perhaps I can help others see things clearer too.
How I see the state we’re in – we’re in a crucial revolutionary state of being, very close to a tipping point that could see the world as we know it cease to exist. But I remain optimistic – I believe humanity has common sense. It’s no wonder we’ve taken so long to recognise these literally global changes, our evolved psychologies’ are tuned to the world around us on a scale orders of magnitude too small, in terms of present day global-community problems. Yet we have successfully transcended the brains of a single man or woman and we are finding long-term solutions that can lead to a healthy planet. We have yet to save planet Earth but we at least know we can and have glimpses of how to do it.
 
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