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Monday, January 27, 2014

If Humans Are Descended From Apes, Why Are There Still Apes?

Recently two close friends of mine, whose intelligence I respect, when the subject of evolution came up casually in conversation repeated the comment that's the title of this post: “If humans are descended from apes, why are there still apes?”  Frankly, I was appalled.  The slightest investigation of evolution answers this question.  It’s as if they had said to me, “We can tell that the sun goes around the earth because we can see it move through the sky.”

Humans are not descended from modern apes.  Instead on the tree of life both humans and modern apes share a common ancestor from whom the two species then split off.  We are most genetically similar to chimpanzees, so our common ancestor likely was shared with them, and finding the “Chimp Human Last Common Ancestor” has been one of the goals of evolutionary scientists.  Current thinking is that the split occurred around 6 million years ago, though there are arguments for both a longer and a shorter time.  The CHLCA is likely to be Sahelanthropus tchadensis (or a very similar species—there are various candidates), and here is a reconstructed picture of that handsome critter:

Moving on from Sahelanthropus tchadensi our ancestors evolved into Australopithecus afarensis, around 4 million years ago, and that creature is shown here:

Evolution of our species continued and eventually we split off from Homo sapiens neanderthalensis around 500,000 years ago:

to become modern humans under the designation of Homo sapiens: 

As I’ve said before in this blog, the slightest objective investigation of evolution shows that it's not only true, but not even subject to scientific question.  In my prior posts (see below) I’ve explained why it’s clear that evolution is the only explanation of life that’s consistent with the incontrovertible facts.
The Tree of Life [Click To Enlarge]

J.B.S. Haldane
Famed biologist J.B.S. Haldane was once asked what would convince him that evolution was not true and he replied that the discovery of a fossiled rabbit in Precambrian rocks would do it.   Rabbits had not evolved prior to the Cambrian period of rock formation, so their presence in older rocks would throw all of evolution out of sync.  Of course rabbits appearing at the proper moment are only one example of what the rock/fossil record must show.  What is telling is that the scientific evidence is perfect: all fossils are found in the rocks in the exact order that evolution predicts.  Isn’t that evidence of the highest kind that evolution is rock solid (pun intended) right? 

Not believing in evolution in the 21st century is an embarrassing confession of ignorance.  It’s the same as not understanding that the earth is billions of years old or agreeing with conspiracy theorists who think that the moon landing was a hoax.  Basic understanding of how the world works requires that some knowledge of evolution be part of your resume. 

Finally, note that a belief in evolution says nothing about God.  To a prior post of mine a commentator remarked that my championship of evolution meant I was saying God doesn’t exist.  I am certainly not saying that, and never have.  I don't know that God doesn't exist---you can't prove a negative, and no one can “know” a negative assertion.  Many people who believe in evolution also believe in God, and a large number of religions find no contradiction between God and Darwinism.  I'm an atheist, but that word only means I don't believe in God (a provable fact: I don't believe in God).  But that's not the same as saying that I know God doesn't exist.  I also don't know that fairies or unicorns don't exist.  But we have to live our lives based on as much provable knowledge as possible, and not cloud our thinking with what we wish were true.

Related Posts:
“I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
“Rock Around the Sun,” December 31, 2010
“Is Evolution True?” July 13, 2011;
“Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Designer?”, May 12, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Silly Personal Games

Don't Try This One
I’ve chosen throughout my life to adopt self-imposed challenges in the stupidest areas, or, as phrased in this blog post title, silly personal games.  I’m a person who is fascinated by the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy, about which I’ve written a good deal (see Related Posts below), and so some of these games are left brain (words/numbers, abstract concepts) in nature, while others are pure right brain (physical things).  I play bridge, for example, and that’s a left-brain activity (except for holding the cards in your hand and playing them), while bowling, which I no longer do, is right brain oriented (keeping score being the only left brain part of bowling).

Every morning I read the newspaper and use my left brain to work the puzzles, and every night before going to sleep I play one round of Angry Birds on my iPad until I score a perfect three stars, a purely right brain endeavor. 
Typical Angry Birds Screen
Left Brain Silly Game:

The silly left brain game that I play on top of the usual ones has to do with Sudoku.  You may know the basic game, which starts with a grid that looks something like this:
The goal is to complete the missing squares with the digits one through nine so that these digits will be repeated in each block, each row, and each column. 

While this involves numbers, math has nothing to do with it.  Instead it’s a test of logic.  The game was invented in France and then popularized by a Japanese company in 2005.  Like most players, I started on easy puzzles (with very few missing numbers), and worked my way up to a level that calls “Evil.”

The silly game comes from my keeping score how often I finish the puzzle successfully, and how often I fail completely (and end up with, say, two “8”s in the same column).  Failing is frustrating because it’s almost impossible to trace back to the mistake and right things from there, and this means I have effectively wasted half an hour or more.  I estimate that I solve about 60% of the puzzles, and my record is nine in a row before a failure occurred.  [Interestingly, that percentage is about the same as mine for solving any given Angry Birds screen with three stars without having to go to YouTube to find the winning strategy.  I hasten to add I never go to YouTube unless I have at least solved the screen with a rating of one star.]

Right Brain Silly Games:

There are a number of these right brain games. 
The Pin Drop Statistics.  For decades I’ve worked out in my own basement on a gym machine with the usual mechanism that uses a pin to change weights [see photo].  Whenever I drop this metal pin it clangs annoyingly on the floor, and so I challenged myself to see how long I could go without dropping the pin.  As the statistics below show, the periods between drops range from days to years.  I’ve become very careful about moving that pin from one weight slot to another, to the point where I’m a little nutty about it.

[Part of My Workout Statistics Sheet]

The Toilet Paper Roll Toss.  The nuttiness of the pin drop game is nothing compared to this one.  The game started innocently enough, though more recently in 2006 when I moved into my condo.  Sitting on the toilet and finishing off a roll of toilet paper I would toss the cardboard tube into the wastebasket about four feet away.  Eventually I became proud of how often I accurately hit the wastebasket, and a running count of the statistics began.  My old record was ten tubes in a row before a miss, and that record stood for years.  But since I got married and David moved in, the use of toilet paper has of course doubled, so there are more opportunities for this exciting contest to occur.  In the beginning David was astounded to learn that I wanted him to save the tubes (he caught me taking one from a wastebasket in the guest room half-bath and asked me what I was doing, so I, chagrined, explained).  But now he's resigned himself to the madness.

Even better, I’m currently on a roll (so to speak), having successfully tossed thirteen tubes into the wastebasket without missing.  Very exciting!  Whenever I have a new victory I spontaneously shout out the number (“Thirteen!”), which originally caused my hubby to come running, worried there was some emergency erupting in the bathroom (Thirteen what?”).  Now David  just humors me (“Should I call Sports Illustrated with the news?” he sarcastically asks when I emerge triumphant from the bathroom, doing a victory lap of the bedroom).

So, blog readers, those are my silly personal games.  Now fess up.  You yourself have some personal games that are similar, don’t you?  Send them to me, complete with details and even photos, and when I get enough of them I’ll put out a new blog post highlighting the best of the best.  I’ll even protect your anonymity if you’re too embarrassed to own up to your games, though having confessed myself to the toilet paper roll toss how could you top that?

Send those emails to me at
Related Posts:
“Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun,” May 29, 2010
“The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life,” January 17, 2011
“Life's Little (But Important) Rules,” April 23, 2011
“How To Be Perfect,” March 17, 2012
“Life’s Unexpected Pleasures: “¡Más Bueno Que El Pan!” November 5, 2012
“Douglas and David Get Married,” December 20, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Monday, January 13, 2014

An Atheist at a Believer’s Funeral

James Lee Griffith
My longtime bridge partner, the wonderful James Griffith, died on January 2nd after major problem with his lungs. He was 77, about to turn 78 this month. I loved this terrific man (and his darling wife Sherry), and will miss him a lot. I will continue to see Sherry as we keep rooting the Ohio State basketball team on to victory as the three of us did in the past.

The funeral service was held in the Methodist church where Jim and Sherry have long been cherished parishioners. Jim was a believer, but he knew I was an atheist and that never bothered him. It was a subject about which he could joke ("I sure hope I’m right and you’re wrong.") He read my atheist thriller novel "Imaginary Friend," and professed to like it, being particularly startled by the ending.

The church setting was beautiful, hymns were sung, and there was a moving sermon by the minister, who clearly knew Jim well, and spoke with humor and compassion about this much-loved person.

For an atheist attendance at a religious ceremony is always somewhat awkward. At a funeral particularly is atheism an unwanted guest. Consider the very comforting Biblical verse the minister read.

John 14:
My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
You know the way to the place where I am going.

Since everyone knows an atheist doesn’t believe this, it’s a good time to keep quiet and look noncommittal. During the hymns that is also the right attitude, but what’s one to do when the minister asks everyone to join in a public prayer (printed in the program), with frequent crowd responses of "We give Thee thanks, O God" expected after intonations such as "For the dear friends and kindred of our homes whose faces we see know more, but whose love is with us forever, . . . and for members of our household of faith who worship Thee now is heaven"? I remained silent rather than be a hypocrite, but found myself hoping no one would notice my nonparticipation. No one did, or at least no one commented upon it to me.

What would I say, I asked myself, if someone questioned my failure to make the suggested praise to their god? I decided that when a family and group of friends is grieving in a house of worship where I have voluntarily entered, it’s their religion that rightly sets the tone, and it would be wrong to mention atheism in any way. Doing so would impliedly announce, "You’re all wrong. Dead is dead." That would be a most unpopular and stupid response, and focus the event away from the true purpose of the gathering. Instead I settled on a statement I was, happily, not required to use: "My religious views are private and I would prefer not to discuss them." If pushed ("Aren’t you an atheist?") I would repeat it and change the subject ("This is a beautiful church, do you know how old it is?").

Along with another of his friends and both of his surviving children, I was called upon to say a few words about Jim, so I told some humorous stories about our adventures at the bridge table before concluding with:
Whether it happens suddenly or is prolonged, it’s always a surprise when someone we love dies, but the loss of Jim is startlingly unreal. He was such a vibrant, in-the-moment person, that it seems unbelievable that this wonderful man is no longer with us.

I join his family and friends in paying tribute to him today.

Jim and Me at the Bridge Table

But even atheists must admit that a belief in an afterlife is of great comfort for the bereaved survivors on the death of someone dear to them. The quote from John 14, above, with its assurance that Jim is still "living" is some sense, makes it much easier to go on without his continued physical participation, and to "talk" to him as if he were still listening.

I don’t, of course, think that believing in some supernatural and fantastical place, without evidence of any kind, is the sort of decision I could ever make, but its appeal in this setting is obvious. My take on death has been explained at length in other posts [see particularly "When Atheists Die" in Related Posts below]. I won’t repeat that, but here’s the link:

James Griffith lived a life anyone would have been proud of, and he leaves behind him a loving family and a large number of true friends. The pain of his departure is hard, but it’s also part of the life cycle for all inhabitants of the planet. I will miss him very much.
Jim’s son Tom set a nice tone for the ceremony when he read a poem by Emily Dickinson, and I think I’ll close this post with her moving words.
After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.


Related Posts:
"How To Become an Atheist," May 16, 2010
"Imaginary Friend," June 22, 2010
"When Atheists Die," October 17, 2010
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
"The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others," December 17, 2012
"A Guide to the Best of My Blog," April 29, 2013