Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tim Minchin at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

via RichardDawkins

Tim Minchin's stunning performance of his beat poem 'Storm' raised the roof in applause! Eloquently and wittily honouring reason, science and life appreciation and debunking homeopathy, psychics, alternative medicine, religion etc.

Live performance at the 9 carols for a Godless Christmas Show, 21st December 2008, Hammersmith Apollo.

I added the show to HASSERS Meetup:

19. Comment #307737 by SmartLX on December 28, 2008 at 1:54 pm
"Science adjusts its views
Based on what's observed,
Faith is the denial of observation
So that belief can be preserved."

That's bumper sticker material right there, or great fodder for the side of the bus.

Heaven for the Godless?

by Charles M. Blow, NY Times

Thanks to Catalin for the link at RD.

Reposted from:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

What on earth does this mean?

One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.

Also, many Christians apparently view their didactic text as flexible. According to Pew’s August survey, only 39 percent of Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and 18 percent think that it’s just a book written by men and not the word of God at all. In fact, on the question in the Pew survey about what it would take to achieve eternal life, only 1 percent of Christians said living life in accordance with the Bible.

Now, there remains the possibility that some of those polled may not have understood the implications of their answers. As John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said, “The capacity of ignorance to influence survey outcomes should never be underestimated.” But I don’t think that they are ignorant about this most basic tenet of their faith. I think that they are choosing to ignore it ... for goodness sake.

Comments here.

Scientific illiteracy all the rage among the glitterati

by Independent

Thanks to EJ Ashcraft III for the link.  via Richard Dawkins
Reposted from:

By Steve Connor, Science editor
Saturday, 27 December 2008

When it comes to science, Barack Obama is no better than many of us. Today he joins the list of shame of those in public life who made scientifically unsupportable statements in 2008.

Closer to home, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith faltered on the science of food, while Kate Moss, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore all get roastings for scientific illiteracy.

The Celebrities and Science Review 2008, prepared by the group Sense About Science, identifies some of the worst examples of scientific illiteracy among those who profess to know better – including top politicians.

Mr Obama and John McCain blundered into the MMR vaccine row during their presidential campaigns. "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," said President-elect Obama. "Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it," he said.

His words were echoed by Mr McCain. "It's indisputable that [autism] is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it," he said. "There's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in the vaccines."

Exhaustive research has failed to substantiate any link to vaccines or any preservatives. The rise in autism is thought to be due to an increased awareness of the condition.

Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's running mate, waded into the mire with her dismissal of some government research projects. "Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not," Ms Palin said. But the geneticist Ellen Solomon takes Ms Palin to task for not understanding the importance of studies into 
fruit flies, which share roughly half their genes with humans. 
"They have been used for more than a century to understand how genes work, which has implications in, for example, understanding the ageing process," she said.

Hollywood did not escape the critical analysis of the scientific reviewers, who lambasted Tom Cruise, for his comments on psychiatry being a crime against humanity, and Julianne Moore, who warned against using products full of unnatural chemicals.

"The real crime against humanity continues to be the enduring misery caused by the major mental illnesses across the globe, and the continuing lack of resources devoted to supporting those afflicted," said the psychiatrist Professor Simon Wessely.

In answer to Moore, the science author and chemist John Emsley said that natural chemicals are not automatically safer than man-made chemicals, which undergo rigorous testing.

"Something which is naturally sourced may well include a mixture of things that are capable of causing an adverse reaction," Dr Emsley said.

Other mentions went to the chefs Nigella Lawson, who said "mind meals" can make you feel different about life, and Delia Smith, who claimed it is possible to eliminate sugar from the diet. The dietician Catherine Collins said that Lawson's support for expensive allergy foods is a wasted opportunity and too costly for those on limited incomes, while Lisa Miles of the British Nutrition Foundation said that sugars are part of a balanced diet.

Kate Moss, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore all espoused the idea that you can detoxify your body with either diet (scientifically unsupportable) or, in the case of Moore, products such as "highly trained medical leeches" which make you bleed. Scientists point out that diet alone cannot remove toxins and that blood itself is not a toxin, and even if it did contain toxins, removing a little bit of it is not going to help.

But top prize went to the lifestyle guru Carole Caplin for denouncing a study showing that vitamin supplements offer little or no health benefits as "rubbish" – it is the third year on the run that she has been mentioned in the review. Science author and GP Ben Goldacre pointed out that the study Ms Caplin referred to was the most authoritative yet published. "Carole should understand that research can often produce results which challenge our preconceptions: that is why science is more interesting than just following your nose," Dr Goldacre said.

Talking sense: Two who got it right

*The writer Jilly Cooper gets nine out of ten for making a stab at why alternative treatments might work: "If you believe them, then they work." That describes the placebo effect, where a harmless but useless remedy seems to work because the patient feels as if it is working.

*The vocal coach and singer Carrie Grant is applauded for raising the profile of Crohn's disease without abusing the science. "There are so many therapies available, but none of them are going to cure you," she said.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New Humanist Advent Podcasts

Which scientist or philosopher would you nominate to celebrate as we currently do Jesus on Christmas Day?
Listen to my pick of the podcasts:
All podcasts here.

Spirituality linked to brain damage

Tom Rees at BHA Science blogs about

Spirituality linked to brain damage

and concludes that brain activity changes when people undergo spiritual or religious experiences (which isn't surprising since it's the brain that generates these mental states.)

According to Tom Rees, Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass at the University of Missouri-Columbia has found that people with evidence of brain damage to their right parietal lobes score higher on a standard measure of spirituality.

What they did was to assess 26 adults with modest traumatic brain injury (they were all walking wounded, able to function in the outside world) to a battery of tests of brain function. What they were expecting to see was that brain damage in the right parietal lobe would increase spirituality, but that damage to the frontal lobe or left temporal lobe would decrease spirituality.

In fact, damage to the frontal lobe did not seem to have any effect, and although there was a slight signal with damage to the left temporal lobe, it wasn't statistically significant.

So it seems that shutting down this part of the brain seems essential for at least some aspects of religious experiences. Why this particular bit of the brain? Well, it's all to do with how we figure out where we are, and how we relate to the world around us. As Johnstone & Glass explain:
From a neuropsychological perspective, the right hemisphere allows for individuals to define themselves in relation to the immediate environment, the here-and-now. The right parietal lobe is generally associated with awareness of the self relative to other objects in space, awareness of the self as perceived by others in social situations, and the ability to critically evaluate one’s own strengths and weaknesses (such as insight). Disorders of the right hemisphere involve a diminished capacity in the ability of the self to function in the immediate environment, including difficulties localizing the body in space...
In other words, Tom Rees says "it's this bit of the brain that figures out where you are in time and space. If it breaks down, you'll experience some pretty freaky sensations - which, if you are so inclined, the rest of your brain will interpret as a religious experience."

My Christmas message? There's probably no God by Polly Toynbee (President of Brit. Humanist Assoc.)

It is neither emotionally nor spiritually deficient to reject religions that seek to infantilise us with impossible beliefs

Antidisestablishmentarianism is on the march. Which is odd, considering there is only the faintest whiff of disestablishmentarianism to fight. The Archbishop of Canterbury set this hare running with his usual confused mumbling into his beard. To disestablish the church would be "by no means the end of the world", he said bravely. He hastened to add that he did not want the church sundered from the state right now. And he would oppose "secularists [boo, hiss] trying to push religion into the private sphere". This sent the Telegraph and Mail into a spin, claiming a devilish distestablishment plot on the Labour backbenches - though they could find only three usual suspects. These MPs say the likely move to end the 1701 Act of Settlement that bars Catholics from the throne will make an established church impossible.

more ....

Center for Inquiry - Promotion

via Darwins Dagger

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Hardcore Atheist Meme

I score 24/50

And just so you know how you fare, here’s a scale to rank yourself (adapted from Darwin’s Dagger’s suggestions):

0-10: Impressive, but not too far from agnosticism.

11-20: You are, literally, a “New Atheist.” But you now have something to strive for! Go for the full 50!

21-30: You are an atheist, but babies aren’t running away from you. Yet.

31-40: You are the 5th Horseman! Congratulations!

41-50: PZ Myers will now be taking lessons from you.

via vjack,
There is a new meme going around started by Friendly Atheist to see how hardcore an atheist one is. I'm not sure how many of the items on this list translate into being a hardcore atheist, but I'll play. The rules are simple:
Copy and paste the list below on your own site, boldfacing the things you’ve done. (Feel free to add your own elaboration and commentary to each item!)
1. Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge.
2. Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) in person. - RD several times.
3. Created an atheist blog. (HASSERS & contribute to BHA Science)
4. Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone. (with Richard Harries & Julian Baggini in December 2008)
5. Gotten offended when someone called you an agnostic.
6. Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron.
7. Own more Bibles than most Christians you know.

8. Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc.
9. Have come out as an atheist to your family. (easy - they are (almost all) agnostics & atheists)
10. Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering.
11. Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization.
12. Had a Humanist wedding ceremony.
13. Donated money to an atheist organization.
14. Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins. (part of a bookshelf)
15. Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism.
16. Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize.
17. Had to hide your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away.
18. Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc).
19. Attended a protest that involved religion.
20. Attended an atheist conference.
21. Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel.
22. Started an atheist group in your area or school. (HASSERS!)
23. Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism.
24. Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die.
25. Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction.
26. Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place.
27. Lost a job because of your atheism.
28. Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count).
29. Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills.
30. Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
31. Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!”
32. Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying.
33. Have turned on Christian TV because you need something entertaining to watch.
34. Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist.
35. Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant.
36. Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service).
37. Subscribe to an freethought magazine (e.g. Free Inquiry, Skeptic)
38. Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism.
39. Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God.
40. Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift.
41. Wear pro-atheist clothing in public.
42. Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically because you wanted to argue with them.
43. Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God.
44. Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants).
45. Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it.
46. Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy.”
47. Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all.
48. Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to…
49. Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray.
50. Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Happiness spreads like the plague

Are your friends happy? What about their friends? These people, new research suggests, will have a profound impact on your own personal satisfaction.
Like an influenza outbreak, happiness - and misery too - spread through social networks, affecting people through three degrees of separation. For instance, a happy friend of a friend of a friend increases the chances of personal happiness by about 6% (see graphic, right).
Compare that to research showing that a $5000 income bump ups the odds by just 2%, says James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who led the new study.
"Even people we don't know and have never met have bigger effect on our mood than substantial increases in income," he says.
He and colleague Nicholas Christakis, of Boston's Harvard Medical School, made the connection by mining 53,228 social connections between 5124 people who took part in a decades-long clinical study.

Emotional ripples

As part of the Framingham Heart Study, participants updated researchers on their social contacts and health status, including happiness, as measured by a standard psychological questionnaire. Many participants listed several other study participants, allowing the researchers to connect social dots.
Fowler and Christakis took a similar approach to document how obesity and cigarette smoking permeated through the same social network.
Even more than smoking and obesity, happiness spreads best at close distances, they found. A happy next-door neighbour ups the odds of person happiness by 34%, a sibling who lives within 1 mile (1.6 kilometres) by 14%, and a friend within half a mile by a whopping 42%.
The effect falls off through the network, with friends' happiness boosting the chances of personal happiness by an average of 15% and friends of friends by 10%. As with obesity and smoking, Fowler and Christakis detected no effect beyond three degrees of separation.
While there might be six degrees of separation between any two people, "there are three degrees of influence," Christakis says.
Fowler theorises that beyond three connections, a kind of social dissonance saps the transmission of behaviour, almost like a wave.
"If you drop one pebble in a pond, it will create ripples out from the pebble," he says. "That's not what's happening here. You have a whole handful of pebbles and you're throwing them in the pond at once."

Contagious feeling

In the case of happiness, dour sentiments contain its infective spread. Fowler and Christakis found that each happy contact increases a person's odds of happiness by an average of 9%, while an unhappy contact decreases those odds by 7%.
The long-time collaborators even bet over which emotion would spread more potently.
"I think that happiness is more likely to spread because here's an emotion that's about social cohesion," says Fowler. Visible and contagious happiness might have helped our ancestors maintain social cohesion.
"In this rare occasion, James was right and I was wrong," Christakis admits. "It's pleasurable to be near other happy individuals and not near other unhappy individuals."
Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, and curator of the World Database of Happiness agrees. "Happy people are typically more involved, are nicer to their kids and their dog, and live longer," he says.
The study, which he describes as "terribly creative", might even help people improve their daily lives. "If you want to make people happier, you know at least how it spreads."
Journal reference: BMJ (DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a2338)
If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.
Have your say
Comments 1 | 2

Newscientist---intellectual Property Rights & Domain Name ( To Ceo )

Thu Dec 04 13:46:08 GMT 2008 by Nick Hu
This comment has been found to be in breach of our terms of use and has been removed.

Better At Work

Fri Dec 05 04:52:30 GMT 2008 by Steven E. Romer
I find this works at the workplace too. I read a study a few years ago where they found that humor in the workplace actually increases productivity. I cited this to other people at work who were all-business and seemed to not have a sense of humor. They lightened up after that.

This also reminds me of the saying that "what goes around comes around" because if you make others happy, then this effect should feed back on you too! Feedback effects probably magnify the effects into the numbers cited here.

Spurious Correlation?

Fri Dec 05 06:10:42 GMT 2008 by Mark
I wonder if they could control anyhow for seasonal effects. There are exogenous variables causing happiness across the network. For example, if most of my friends are Democrats, they became happy all at the same time after the last presidential election not "because" of my influence, but because some external factor (Obama winning the election). Similarly, my friends are generally happier in Spring not "because" I am happy, but because days are longer and sunnier. All this would contaminate the published analysis. I wonder how serious this issue is.
Comments 1 | 2
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Your personal happiness can be measured by your social network
Your personal happiness can be measured by your social network

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Let's stick to the science

In his attack on my research into children and religious ideas, AC Grayling plays the psychologist and spins conspiracy theories

Last week at Cambridge University's Faraday Institute, I summarised some scientific research that leads me and many of my colleagues to argue that from childhood humans have a number of predispositions that incline them to believe in gods generally and perhaps a super-knowing, creator god in particular. Unlike Andrew Brown, AC Grayling has opted to ignore the science and focus on the alleged motivations of the scientist (me) and one of his sources of funding (the John Templeton Foundation). As a philosopher, Grayling should know that attacking an argument not on its merits but by discrediting the arguer commits the ad hominem fallacy which is generally the strategy of school kids and desperate, uninformed people.


Do children believe because they're told to by adults?

The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on "showing" in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

Justin Barrett, a Christian and member of the centre's research team (whether it is research or propaganda is the moot question here) says with his colleagues on the centre's website:

Why is belief in supernatural beings so common? Because of the design of human minds. Human minds, under normal developmental conditions, have a strong receptivity to belief in gods, in the afterlife, in moral absolutes, and in other ideas commonly associated with 'religion' … In a real sense, religiousness is the natural state of affairs. Unbelief is relatively unusual and unnatural.

This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

(source: AC Grayling in The Guardian and reposted in HASSERS)

Out of the mouths of babes

Do children believe because they're told to by adults? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Why do the majority of people – across cultures and throughout history – believe in gods?

One way to address this question is to look at why it is that children acquire beliefs in gods. If an idea cannot be easily learned by children then it is relatively unlikely to survive into the next generation and will die out. So if we can explain why children are so ready to believe in gods, we will be a big step closer in understanding religious beliefs more generally. It may seem that the answer is simple: indoctrination.

Children believe because their parents or other adults teach them, right? Unfortunately, the story is not that simple.
Fortunately, it is far more interesting.

Children will believe a lot of what their parents teach them, but not everything. Try to convince a child that a tarantula is harmless, that broccoli is a better food for them than crisps, or that Paul McCartney is a better musician than Miley Cyrus and you'll likely get nowhere. Likewise, teachers have difficulty teaching many scientific insights such as evolution by natural selection or that solid objects such as tables are composed almost entirely of space.

Children learn things that their minds are tuned to learn more readily than things that go against that natural tuning.

Developmental psychologists have provided evidence that children are naturally tuned to believe in gods of one sort or another.

• Children tend to see natural objects as designed or purposeful in ways that go beyond what their parents teach, as Deborah Kelemen has demonstrated. Rivers exist so that we can go fishing on them, and birds are here to look pretty.

• Children doubt that impersonal processes can create order or purpose. Studies with children show that they expect that someone not something is behind natural order. No wonder that Margaret Evans found that children younger than 10 favoured creationist accounts of the origins of animals over evolutionary accounts even when their parents and teachers endorsed evolution. Authorities' testimony didn't carry enough weight to over-ride a natural tendency.

• Children know humans are not behind the order so the idea of a creating god (or gods) makes sense to them. Children just need adults to specify which one.

• Experimental evidence, including cross-cultural studies, suggests that three-year-olds attribute super, god-like qualities to lots of different beings. Super-power, super-knowledge and super-perception seem to be default assumptions. Children then have to learn that mother is fallible, and dad is not all powerful, and that people will die. So children may be particularly receptive to the idea of a super creator-god. It fits their predilections.

• Recent research by Paul Bloom, Jesse Bering, and Emma Cohen suggests that children may also be predisposed to believe in a soul that persists beyond death.

That belief comes so naturally to children may sound like an attack on religious belief (belief in gods is just leftover childishness) or a promotion of religious belief (God has implanted a seed for belief in children). What both sides should agree upon is the scientific evidence: certainly cultural inputs help fill in the details but children's minds are not a level playing field. They are tilted in the direction of belief.

Justin L Barrett will discuss his research today at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion seminar, "Born Believers: the Naturalness of Childhood Theism" at St Edmund's College, University of Cambridge

Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark - Peter Atkins

Peter Atkins 25 minute talk.
Pride in Prejudice
October 5, 2008

My Notes
Candle - one end gives out light - the other end darkness. Prejudice is represented by the candle.

Rotten bad prejudice - spreads darkness - eg religion presumes any explanation will necessarily be beyond our comprehension - despises human understanding

Good prejudice - good light - scientific method is the only road to true comprehension (4'0"), flexible not rigid prejudice, we discard our prejudice when the publically available evidence is overwelming (unlike religion); experiment is the only true way of understanding and the rest is imagination (Max Planck). Science does not consist of little warring tribes - but is a great river

New models or paradigms are an approximation. Science works, many springs are supportive not at each others throats, detached from sentiment, open to public scrutiny, verifiable predictions.

bad/good prejudices - Aristotle (world is explicable - observations - rest is natural state of motion - thought) , Galileo, Newton, Copernicas.

Atkins Foundational Prejudices - science is a uniquely reliable way of illuminating the world and discovering its prejudices (11'58")

Atkins Operational Prejudices - scientific method can illuminate every real question and incidently can reveal the emptiness of vacuuous questions and musings of theology (purpose of universe / nature of afterlife).

Three Eternal True Paradigmatic prejudices (book: Galileos Finger)
1) Energy is conserved - conservation of energy underlies causality
2) Energy degrades - 2nd law of thermodynamics - things get worse! Can tap into degradation eg sun collected on earth by photosynthesis or metabolism in body giving amino acids or organs. Evolution by Natural Selection is a manner of degrading energy
3) Mathematics works - supreme language of the illuciadation and description of the world

Good Prejudices
1) No validity in question that begins in 'Why' (eg why was the universe created, why evil in the world, why are plants green): can it be deconstructed into 'How' questions (how is it that the world exists, . If it cannot be deconstructed it is not a real question and not worthy of further consideration
2) Reductionism is really assembalism
3) the world is nothing more than Mathematics

The Science Studio - AC Grayling -The Good Life

a one hour conversation with philosopher Anthony Grayling October 3, 2008
Pdf Download Transcript

On Darwin
GRAYLING: Well of course, I’m a great admirer of Darwin. And I think his life and work is not just important from the point of view of the contribution that he made to the biological sciences, you know, a transforming, revolutionary contribution really, but also his life and work is in itself iconic in a certain way. Because if you think about his own personal progression from a kind of unreflective, nominal faith, the possibility of going into the church, and then his own realization as he traveled and studied and looked at evidence. Contrast, for example, Darwin’s journey, intellectual journey, from a reflex unquestioning Anglican to an agnostic or an atheist, to somebody like Edmund Gosse who, presented with the same sort of evidence, struggled like mad to hang onto his religious faith and to reinterpret everything in the light of it. Between the two of them they are, as it were, the opposite poles of something that happens when science really does come into conflict with the ancient stories, the ancient creation myths and the rest.

And so there is something very courageous and poignant about Darwin’s life, because for a very, very long time he kept quiet, realizing the implications of what he was going to say. Very early on, early in the 1840s, he wrote, “I feel as if I have killed God.” In a sense, of course, he had. And heaven knows what might have happened if, you know, Russel Wallace hadn’t come along and chivvied him up a little bit and got him to publish eventually. Perhaps it would have all been posthumous.

On Science v Religion
You know I sometimes think that one of the impulses, and there are many, to accepting a religious view of the world is that it provides a narrative and closure and it’s very neat, it’s got a beginning and an end, and it’s got some solace attached to the story about the end. Whereas science gives us something very open-ended and inconclusive, that you have to live with, not knowing what the answers are yet, but being prepared to seek them, to carry on looking for them, and to struggling with the new and sometimes more difficult questions that arise when you do come up with some solutions.

And so it is with personal life, thinking about how you’re going to accept the inevitability of loss or grief. So for example, the minute that you enter into a relationship with another person, especially if you love that other person, one or other of you thereby contracts for loss. You know, if you marry somebody, one of you is going to die before the other one does. Loving somebody is buying into a certainty that there’s going to be hurt involved in it at some point. But to recognize that that is, in fact, part of the value of what you’ve done, and to accept that it’s in this life now, in the span of that relationship, that all the best that you can make out of it must be made. Now that seems to me to be deep and courageous, that view of life. Whereas, sticking with a sort of reflex view of, oh it doesn’t matter because you’ll meet up again later, or you know, everything’s going to come right in the end, is, it’s a kind of shallow, inexpensive view of life, if you like.

On Bertrand Russell
BINGHAM: who influenced you the most in your thinking?
GRAYLING: Well it’s hard to say that. I think, in my sort of more technical work, I suppose Kant and Aristotle and people like that have been big influences. But somebody I regard as having been quite an exemplary philosopher, both in the technical sense and in the more public sense, would be somebody like Bertrand Russell. Now there was a man who, whatever else you think about him, at least spoke his mind, and I think made quite serious and important contributions to social changes. That book of his, for which he won the Nobel Prize, published in the early ‘30s, Marriage and Morals, was a book which, if you were to trace its influence on thinking in the post-war period, probably a very significant one. So you know, the social and moral revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s may have something to do with what Russell had to say. If true, that shows you that philosophy does bake bread.

On Proselytising to children (@ 40 minutes)
BINGHAM : Are there any discoveries that you’d like to have made? Anything you’re…? GRAYLING: Well I wouldn’t have minded coming up with the general theory of relativity, for example, that would have been fun. But I think, what I would like now is, above all else, to discover a way of persuading everybody to leave kids alone, I mean small children alone, from the point of view of them with religious beliefs. If you’d only just leave children to get on with a standard course of education, perhaps learn about all the, you know, the mythologies and religions of the past, without being persuaded by parents or schools or society into one or another religious commitment, before they’re in a position to evaluate it properly, then I’m sure the influence of religion in society would be considerably less.

On Creationism in Science Lessons
BINGHAM: It is interesting that, I mean, literally in the last four days, five days after the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Michael Reiss, who is Director of Education at the Royal Society, which is Britain’s major academy of science, I suppose, founded in 1660, had to resign because he gave a talk entitled “Should creationism be a part of the school curriculum?” And I believe, I think he makes that case, does he not, I mean, he is indeed a cleric, isn’t he. Could you speak to this a little bit, because this is an interesting story?
GRAYLING: He’s Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education at the University of London and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was their Director of Education Policy. Now it happens that he’s been; it was I think a mistake, on his part, and a misrepresentation, on the press’s part, which is the usual way that these things get out of hand. He said that he thought that when school pupils brought up the question of intelligent design or creationism in science classes, that science teachers should talk to them about it, should be prepared to respond and explain why the idea of creationist thing didn’t, doesn’t wash, and what the scientific view is. But the line that he was taking was that they should be treated with respect, these views, and they should be responded to. So you might think that that was a reasonable thing to say. But the Royal Society itself has always had, as a policy, since the issue really blew up, that I.D. and creationism have no place in the science curriculum at all, and that responsible science teaching should teach science and not, you know, all these different stories. And other people have commented, as I have myself done, that of course schoolchildren should be taught about the religions and the mythological traditions and the legends, on a comparative basis, as part of history or social studies or something. And that if these questions were to arise in a science class, that science teachers should say, the proper place for this discussion is in your history lesson or your social science lesson, although they could take the opportunity perhaps to talk a bit about why scientific method is the more appropriate thing to be applying to those sorts of questions. Seems to me that the, that Reiss’ resignation was the right thing, it was the right thing for the Royal Society to say, I’m afraid you’re going to have to quit this. Not because it’s strictly fair to Reiss, but because it reinforces the point that the Royal Society came to make, mainly that science is one thing, and that all the different sorts of creationist stories and legends, of which of course there are dozens and dozens, are more properly dealt with elsewhere.

On why Science matters
BINGHAM: What do you think we should do, what should be happening vis-à-vis science now, in terms of getting it before the public? Proposals?
GRAYLING: Well I think everybody in science who has the ability and the interest ought to be trying to communicate with a much wider audience about what they do, why they do it and why it matters. And that people who care about science, even if they’re not in science themselves, should support that and should try to make people conscious of the fact that there are a number of different sciences, that many of them are of great and immediate interest and importance to progressive flourishing of society and to individuals. Because the case is easily made in connection with biomedical sciences but, you know, even in pure research in physics and in chemistry, we never know what new ideas might come forward and new things be discovered, and that tends to happen all the time. So make the point that science is important, that investment, even in blue sky science, really matters, that as an intelligent, mature society, we should always be pushing the limits of research, always be prepared to put our hands in our pockets for the big things like the north-south hemisphere investigations of the sky, you know, because there’s been controversy about the funding of that just recently, the CERN project. You know, there are all these big endeavors, and all the really important projects involved with science education and public understanding of science and keeping science alive in schools, that all those things tremendously matter. Why they matter--say something about the history, because the history of science is very exciting--and the preparedness of governments and societies as a whole, really to fund this properly and make it work and put their shoulders to the wheel. That, I think, is what we need to be saying now, because so long as the caricature view prevails, and as long as there’s this, you know, polarized debate between religion, as if that were one thing, and science, as if that were one thing, goes on, what we’re going to get in the end is a very evacuated, a very tenuous understanding of both sides of the argument.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Children of God? Religion is not hardwired


There's no real evidence to suggest that religion is hardwired – it's just wishful thinking on the part of religious academics

Earlier this week I had occasion to debate – if the soundbite culture of radio news permits that description – with a member of Oxford University's Centre for Anthropology and Mind the "findings" of its cognition, religion and theology project, to the effect that children are hardwired to believe in a "supreme being". The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on "showing" in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

Justin Barrett, a Christian and member of the centre's research team (whether it is research or propaganda is the moot question here) says with his colleagues on the centre's website:

Why is belief in supernatural beings so common? Because of the design of human minds. Human minds, under normal developmental conditions, have a strong receptivity to belief in gods, in the afterlife, in moral absolutes, and in other ideas commonly associated with 'religion' … In a real sense, religiousness is the natural state of affairs. Unbelief is relatively unusual and unnatural.

This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

Now on this point he and I, an atheist funded by no organisation keen on promoting atheism, agree. Children's earliest experiences are of purposive agency in the adults and other people around them – these being the entities of most interest to them in their first months – and for good evolutionary reasons they are extremely credulous, not only believing that things must be acting as their parents do in being self-moving and intentional, but also believing in tooth fairies, Father Christmas, and a host of other things beside, almost all of which they give up believing before puberty, unless the beliefs are socially reinforced – as with religious and, to a lesser extent, certain other superstitious beliefs. Intellectual maturation is the process in important part of weaning oneself from the assumption that trees and shadows behave as they do for the same reason that one's parents, other humans, and dogs and cats do; it is every bit as natural a fact about children that they cease to apply intentionalistic explanations to everything as that they give them to everything, on the model of their parents' behaviour, in the earliest phases of development.

But Barrett and friends infer from the first half of these unexceptionable facts that children are hardwired to believe in a supreme being. Not only does this ignore the evidence from developmental psychology about the second stage of cognitive maturation, but is in itself a very big – and obviously hopeful – jump indeed. Moreover it ignores the fact that large tracts of humankind (the Chinese for a numerous example) have no beliefs in a supreme being, innate or learned, and that most primitive religion is animistic, a simple extension of the agency-imputing explanation which gives each tree its dryad and each stream its nymph, no supreme beings required.

Barrett and friends say that children are hardwired to believe that nature is designed. This Barrett infers, apparently, from asking small children such questions as "why is this stone pointed?" It does not seem to have occurred to him that the semantics of "why" questions are such that they demand an explanation in terms of reasons or causes in response – the language game is constrained to that pattern: "why is/did?" prompts an automatic "because" – and that even small children know that "just because it is" does not count as satisfactory. So of course, from the limited resources they have in which reasons are vastly more familiar than causes (the causes that natural science later most fully discerns by investigation), they come up with what they know the questioner wishes to hear – an explanation – but in the absence of knowing very much about causes, they give it in intentionalistic terms. A small child might know why something might be made sharp, and for what sort of purpose, but not as readily how it might become so, especially if it is a natural object. All that this shows, therefore, is that the question was ineptly framed, not that the Templeton Foundation has proved that religious belief is innate.

"Religious belief" and early childhood interpretations of how the world work are so far removed from one another that only a preconceived desire to interpret the latter in terms of "intelligent design" and "a supreme being" – the very terms are a giveaway – is obviously tendentious, and this is what is going on here. It would merely be poor stuff if that was all there is to it; but there is more. The Templeton Foundation is rich; it offers a very large money prize to any scientist or philosopher who will say things friendly to religion, and it supports "research" as described above into anything that will add credibility and respectability to religion. Its website portrays its aims as serious and objective, but in truth it is just another example of how well-funded and well-organised some religious lobbies are – a common phenomenon in the United States in particular, and now infecting the body politic here.

But the Templeton Foundation would do better to be frank about its propagandistic intentions, for while it tries to dress itself in the lineaments of objectivity it will always face the accusation of tainting the pool, as with the work of this Oxford University institute.

Indeed I question the advisability of Oxford taking funds from the Templeton Foundation for this kind of work. I wonder whether it has undertaken due diligence on this one. I hope it would not take money supporting research for astrology, Tarot divination, proof that the Olympian deities still exist, and the like. The general claims of religion differ not one jot in intellectual respects – or respectability – from these. Perhaps it should think again.

Center for Inquiry, UK

via Stephen Law:

T Shirts etc also available now.

There are probably lots of atheists out there

reposted from:

There are probably lots of atheists out there

Nov 23, 2008

Atheist symbolSince the Atheist Bus Campaign has made the headlines around the world, Christian organisations have been responding to its “There probably is no god” message. The Rev. Evan Cockshaw of the Evangelism and Outreach Team of Lichfield Diocese set up a new website, There Probably is a God, inviting believers to contribute their “stories of normal everyday people who aren't stupid, and haven't been brainwashed, but will talk honestly and openly about their experiences of the true and living God!”

Among others, P Z Myers, the biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, whose popular Pharyngula science blog frequently mocks religious nonsense of one sort or another, prompted hoots of derision by pointing out the silliness of these stories. It isn’t difficult. For example, the “evidence” includes such gems as “I believe in God because god is real, god makes a difference, god changes lives,” and “I believe in God because ... He's answered my prayers to the specifics countless number of times. I talked with Him this morning! God is an incredible promise keeper. He has kept all His promises to me.” (I wonder what they were?)

The Reverend’s site is a response to the Atheist Bus Campaign. Now there’s a response to his site – a parody called There Probably isn’t a God where atheists are invited to submit their reasons for not believing – “stories of normal everyday people who aren't stupid, and haven't been brainwashed into believing in supernatural beings.” Like the bus campaign website, it’s quickly attracted lots of contributions. Why not add yours?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

George Carlin - Religion is bullshit.

George Carlin - Religion is bullshit via

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Barack Obama on Religion and Politics (Call to Renewal speech, June 2006)

Reconciling Faith and Politics

“(Obama's speech on faith) may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy's Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican...Obama offers the first faith testimony I have heard from any politician that speaks honestly about the uncertainties of belief.”

— E.J. Dionne, Op-Ed., Washington Post, June 30, 2006

I already blogged Obama speech here:
. The transcript of the full "Call to Renewal" June 2006 speech is here.

Here is the IHEU repost of his speech

Given the great debate that has raged for decades in the United States regarding the role of religion in politics it was good to see a presidential candidate giving support for secularism. The edited speech can be seen at:

Given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism are greater than ever. Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation, at least, not just.
We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non- Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would it be James Dobson’s or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay, that eating shell-fish is an abomination? Or should we go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that is so radical that it is doubtful our own Defense Department would survive its application? Before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles now.

Which brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously-motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example,
but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice I can’t simply point to the teachings of my Church, or invoke God’s will.
I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those of no faith at all. Now this is going to be difficult to some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, but in a pluralistic society we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves compromise, the art of what’s possible, and at some fundamental level religion doesn’t allow for compromise. It is the art of the impossible. If God spoke then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts regardless of the consequences. Now to base one’s own life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example. We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham was ordered by God to offer up his only son. Without argument, he takes Isaac up to the mountain top, he binds Isaac to the altar, raises his knife, prepares to act as God commanded. Now we know the thing worked out. God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham passes God’s test of devotion, but it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving the Church saw Abraham up on the roof of the building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the department of children and family services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we don’t hear what Abraham hears. We don’t see what Abraham sees. And so the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason. So we have some work to do here. I am hopeful that we can bridge the gap that exists, to overcome the prejudices that all of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may be, or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide because that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives.

Barack Obama – A Humanist President?

I don't think Obama is a Humanist - but he is a Secularist & Rationalist (of sorts) - crabsallover

by Sangeeta Mall, Editor in IHEU News

Is Obama a Humanist? Certainly he is religious, a church going Christian who was willing to stick his neck out for his pastor. But so far he hasn’t allowed his religion to come in the way of his politics. And, as his speech on religion and politics reproduced on page _ shows, he has consistently made allowance for both diversity and belief in secular laws.

He is a rationalist who has never worn his religion on his sleeve, or tried to thrust it down the throat of the unwilling.

It is this tolerance for the other that Humanism celebrates and welcomes.

The world today is haunted by intolerance and division. The West has to own up to its share of culpability in this state of affairs. It is no less guilty than the Islamic world in encouraging the politics of identity on a global scale. The Church has managed to woo most political leaders into believing that the world is essentially divided, and the only way to make “our” world more secure is by encouraging this divisiveness. Perhaps Mr. Obama will take the lead in proving that the Church, as much as the mullahs, is wrong in this as well. The United States might just, for a change, lead the world from the front in uniting humanity. Someday other nations too might think of treating all their citizens, irrespective of caste, race, sex or religion, as equals. Sceptics will declare that Barack Obama’s victory does not signify that America has overcome its traditional intolerance towards its largest minority group. Certainly that would be a miracle. But on the other hand, it has made that great leap of imagination of according leadership to a man who, traditionally, belongs to the ‘other’. How many of us can do that? And isn’t it high time we tried?

November 2008 IHN published

Nov 21, 2008

The November 2008 issue of International Humanist News has been published. This edition includes features on Barack Obama; Humanism and Islam; and Caste and Untouchability. We have:
available on this web site.

read more

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why we believe in gods


I've not had time to listen to all of this video. Do you agree with the content of his talk?

Was a triple helix the precursor to RNA in the origin of life?

original article:

Peptide nucleic acid (gold) readily enters DNA's major groove to form triple-stranded and other structures with DNA, allowing it to modify the activity of genes in new ways.
Jean-Francois Podevin

Origin of Life?
A major goal of these efforts to create life de novo in the laboratory is to better understand how life may have started on earth. Considering the detailed microbiology of contemporary life-forms, it seems very clear that RNA is probably more primordial and central to life than DNA and proteins. This one molecule can carry both the genotype (the genetic sequence information) of an organism and the phenotype (catalytic functions). For this reason as well as other evidence, many scientists now accept the idea that our DNA/RNA/protein world was preceded by an RNA world [see “The Origin of Life on the Earth,” by Leslie E. Orgel; Scientific American, October 1994].

Yet it is very unclear how primitive prebiotic conditions could have produced RNA molecules, in particular the sugar ribose in the RNA backbone. Further, even if RNA molecules were produced, RNA’s very poor chemical stability hardly would have allowed the molecules to survive unprotected long enough to play a central role in the initial chemical evolution of life. Thus, a molecule like PNA appears very attractive as a candidate for a pre-RNA world: it is extremely stable and chemically simple, and it carries sequence information.

In 2000 Stanley L. Miller, famous for his seminal experiments more than 50 years ago showing that amino acids can form under conditions believed to simulate those on the primitive earth, identified precursors of PNA in similar experiments. Researchers have also shown that sequence information in a PNA oligomer can be transferred by “chemical copying” to another PNA oligomer or to an RNA molecule—processes needed for a PNA world and then a following transitional PNA/RNA world. Admittedly, it is a long leap from these scanty observations to building a strong case for a pre-RNA world based on PNA or some very similar molecule, and for the hypothesis to have any legs at all, scientists must uncover PNA molecules possessing catalytic activity.

Much remains to be learned about PNA 15 years after its discovery: Are catalytic PNA molecules possible? What is a good system for delivering therapeutic PNA into cells? Can a totally alien, PNA-based life-form be created in the lab? I am confident these questions and many others will be well answered over the next 15 years.

In addition to fomenting exciting medical research, these amazing molecules have inspired speculations relating to the origin of life on earth. Some scientists have suggested that PNAs or a very similar molecule may have formed the basis of an early kind of life at a time before proteins, DNA and RNA had evolved. Perhaps rather than creating novel life, artificial-life researchers will be re-creating our earliest ancestors.

Yet a genetic replication system is only one component of life, albeit a central one. The essence of life is a network of chemical reactions functioning in a state that is relatively stable yet not in equilibrium and that is open to both inputs and outputs [see “A Simpler Origin for Life,” by Robert Shapiro; Scientific American, June 2007]. A major challenge will therefore be to incorporate the self-replicating molecule in a larger system that carries out other catalytic activity and has a metabolic cycle and to integrate the system with a physical compartment such as a lipid vesicle, forming what some researchers call a “protocell.

Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million


Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million

by Nicholas Wade, NY Times

Thanks to SPS for the link.

Nicholas Wade is the author of Before the Dawn, an excellent book on human evolution that I'd recommend to everyone. - Josh

Reposted from:

An intact skeleton of a woolly mammoth that is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.
The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.
Though the stuffed animals in natural history museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation of DNA sequencing machines.
If the genome of an extinct species can be reconstructed, biologists can work out the exact DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative. There are talks on how to modify the DNA in an elephant’s egg so that after each round of changes it would progressively resemble the DNA in a mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes.
A woolly mammoth hair ball. Hairs like these were used to sequence the mammoth genome.
The same would be technically possible with Neanderthals, whose full genome is expected to be recovered shortly, but there would be several ethical issues in modifying modern human DNA to that of another human species.
A scientific team headed by Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller at Pennsylvania State University reports in Thursday’s issue of Nature that it has recovered a large fraction of the mammoth genome from clumps of mammoth hair. Mammoths, ice-age relatives of the elephant, were hunted by the modern humans who first learned to inhabit Siberia some 22,000 years ago. The mammoths fell extinct in both their Siberian and North American homelands toward the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Schuster and Dr. Miller said
there was no technical obstacle to decoding the full mammoth genome, which they believe could be achieved for a further $2 million. They have already been able to calculate that the mammoth’s genes differ at some 400,000 sites on its genome from that of the African elephant.
There is no present way to synthesize a genome-size chunk of mammoth DNA, let alone to develop it into a whole animal. But Dr. Schuster said a shortcut would be to modify the genome of an elephant’s cell at the 400,000 or more sites necessary to make it resemble a mammoth’s genome. The cell could be converted into an embryo and brought to term by an elephant, a project he estimated would cost some $10 million.
“This is something that could work, though it will be tedious and expensive,” he said.

There have been several Russian attempts to cultivate eggs from frozen mammoths that look so perfectly preserved in ice. But the perfection is deceiving since the DNA is always degraded and no viable cells remain. Even a genome-based approach would have been judged entirely impossible a few years ago and is far from reality even now.
Still, several technical barriers have fallen in surprising ways. One barrier was that ancient DNA is always shredded into tiny pieces, seemingly impossible to analyze. But a new generation of DNA decoding machines use tiny pieces as their starting point.
Dr. Schuster’s laboratory has two, known as 454 machines, each of which costs $500,000.

Another problem has been that ancient DNA in bone, the usual source, is heavily contaminated with bacterial DNA. Dr. Schuster has found that hair is a much purer source of the host’s DNA, with the keratin serving to seal it in and largely exclude bacteria.

A third issue is that the DNA of living cells can be modified only very laboriously and usually at one site at a time. Dr. Schuster said he had been in discussion with George Church, a well-known genome technologist at Harvard Medical School, about a new method Dr. Church has invented
for modifying some 50,000 genomic sites at a time.

The method has not yet been published, and until other scientists can assess it they are likely to view genome engineering on such a scale as being implausible.
Rudolph Jaenisch, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, said the proposal to resurrect a mammoth was “a wishful-thinking experiment with no realistic chance for success.”

Dr. Church, however, said that there had recently been enormous technical improvements in decoding genomes and that he expected similar improvements in genome engineering. In his new method, some 50,000 corrective DNA sequences are injected into a cell at one time. In the laboratory, the cell would then be grown and tested and its descendants subjected to further rounds of DNA modification until judged close enough to that of the ancient species. In the case of resurrecting the mammoth, Dr. Church said, the process would begin by taking a skin cell from an elephant and converting it to the embryonic state with a method developed last year by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka for reprogramming cells.

Asked if the mammoth project might indeed happen, Dr. Church said that “there is some enthusiasm for it,” although making zoos better did not outrank fixing the energy crisis on his priority list.

Dr. Schuster believes that museums could prove gold mines of ancient DNA because any animal remains containing keratin, from hooves to feathers, could hold enough DNA for the full genome to be recovered by the new sequencing machines.

The full genome of the Neanderthal, an ancient human species probably driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.

But the process of genetically engineering a human genome into the Neanderthal version would probably raise many objections, as would several other aspects of such a project. “Catholic teaching opposes all human cloning, and all production of human beings in the laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically acceptable in humans,” said Richard Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would “alarm a minimal number of people.” The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.

We should not be beholden to the religious to tell us whether or not we should create a Neaderthal from a human. Is there really something so special about humans compared to a chimpanzee?

“The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said.