By The Way

If you're wondering about the differing fonts between quick throw-away posts and multi-paragraph posts, It's because I'm now using OneNote to draft my longer pieces and I haven't quite figured out an easy way to integrate fonts.

I'll fix it soon, now, move along!

God and the Yangtze River Dolphin

You may have noticed I have a passing interest in the subject of religion. You may also have noticed I have a penchant for biology, especially evolutionary biology. Which got me to thinking...


I'm currently watching my way through Last Chance To See, a TV reprise of the 1990 book of the same name, starring Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry. The aim of the series is to revisit some of the world's rarest and most endangered species, an audacious aim given that these reclusive and solitary species are down to tiny numbers of wild specimens. Much of the series has already been spent not finding the animals in the wild. It's kind of tragic, because we know human activity is the major reason for the decline of these species.


Which brings me to the point of the title. What in the world does "god" have to do with the Yangtze River Dolphin? Well, before we hit the theological entity, let me just explain about the  Dolphin.


Also known as the Baiji, the Yangtze River Dolphin was in decline due to human activity for much of the later 20th century, and was classified as endangered by Chinese Authorities in 1979. Decline continued until 1996 when it was declared critically endangered, right up to the last known sighting in 2004. In 2006 an expedition found no trace of the Baiji, and in 2007 the Baiji was declared functionally extinct, though it seems no official extinction will be recorded until 50 years after the last sighting, under IUCN rules.


Whither, then, god?


In my discussions with theists, it's often made abundantly clear, sometimes in aggressive terms, that I cannot disprove the existence of god, and this is just fine. The burden of proof is not on me, but on the theists, so I don't much care. But given that we can declare the Baiji extinct in 50 years with no sighting, how about we do the same with god? Humans have been searching for God for thousands of years, with a distinct lack of success. No-one's produced any genuine evidence for the existence of any god, as far as I know, beyond tortuous logical games, scriptural wrangling, emotional yearnings and a few poorly attested "miracles", for much more than the required fifty years. The age of miracles is well and truly over, if ever it existed. I, for one, think it's been quite long enough now.


We can't know for certain that the Baiji isn't out there, quietly carrying on in some isolated pocket of the Yangtze, safe from predation but critically low on genetic diversity. Likewise we can't know for sure that "god" isn't hiding behind a planet somewhere, laughing to himself about how the crazy humans can't find him. All we can know is we haven't seen either of them for quite some time now.


God, therefore, in my opinion, is extinct. Not merely missing, unsighted, but truly extinct. It's time to pack up the prayer books, lay off the priests and turn out the lights. We'll find a use for all those buildings, don't you worry - so not everything will have been wasted.


The money from the disposal of religious institutions could feed the world's hungry for several years with money left over to fund some truly spectacular scientific projects, so the extinction of god would have some tangible benefits . And perhaps, out of deference to the last sad believers, we could perhaps put up a plaque.


Either way, god, like the Baiji, the Dodo and the orders Saurischa and Ornithischia, is gone, and he's not coming back

Error: compassion not compatible with evolutionary origins. Abort/retry/fail?


Oh, Albert. That last paragraph has just earned you a coveted place in my "Raging Fucking Nutbags" Tweetdeck column, because let's face it, that 's a *really* stupid thing to say.


In fact, evolutionary theory predicts and demands compassionate behaviour in social species. Allow me to explain.


Your strawman of evolution, that the strongest survive, that there's no call to altruism and that "might is right" might be correct, if only we were an entirely solitary species. In your cartoon version of evolution, we're all meandering through life entirely alone, just looking for things to eat and things to fuck, and our only imperative is to kill anything that gets in our way. If the rules were set up like some one-on-one gladiatorial game, then yes, kill, eat, fuck might be a viable strategy. Luckily for us, that's not how biological systems actually work.


You see, when you group together, you can achieve far more than you ever could in a solitary fashion. A small group of humans living together as a family unit, for instance, can co-operate to bring down larger prey, to build more secure dwellings, to carry greater loads, fight off larger predators and (and here's the crucial bit, pay attention), help each other through tough times. In this, a small group of humans becomes far greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn't even matter, necessarily, if one of the members is particularly weak. The group is still more effective. Sometimes, only the strongest will survive, it's true, but even tiny advantages reap great rewards over evolutionary time if those advantages can be inherited.


Evolutionary principles state that if there is an advantage in a given strategy, however marginal, the organisms using that strategy will thrive more than those that don't. For humans, as social creatures, we thrive better in groups, therefore those who can group effectively survive, thrive and reproduce. Those who try the "out on your own" strategy you used in your caricature of evolution will thrive at a lesser rate, and will die out.


So there's an evolutionary pressure pushing us towards more effective social structures. Early humans (and pre-humans) would have initially operated in small family and tribal groups, with genetic factors being their primary unit of heredity. As they became more effective, they could support larger groups, especially with the development of language and the cultural toolkit that came with it. With language comes preservation of ideas, a community chest of knowledge and an important inflection point: continuity of culture. Culture then becomes another unit of heredity, allowing traits which are not genetic to pass down the line. This allows for more rapid adaptation and complex survival strategies beyond simple hunter-gatherer tactics. With agriculture comes the development of the village and town, which grow in their turn to become cities, and cities grouping together to become states. States make alliances with other states, and as culture moves ever onwards, global communication now makes the entire species an evolutionary unit in a way it hasn't been since we were a tiny population eking out a living in pre-historic  Africa.


At each level, there is an evolutionary advantage to helping your fellow human, and exactly how that operates depends on the level. Perhaps the human you see in distress is a brother, a cousin or an uncle - he's part of your family, pretty close. You share genetic material, but perhaps more importantly, you'll help because effective families, as evolutionary units, survive better than families which neglect their kin. An evolutionary pressure exists that makes families more effective and cohesive.


Your genetic make-up includes genes from families that have got through tough times. Perhaps the human in distress is a member of your tribe, though not related. You'll help him, because tribes that pull together effectively outcompete tribes who neglect their members.


Once you reach the level of towns and cities as evolutionary units, things are far more complex. Many strategies have developed to make larger groups of people more effective, and they've usually crowded out the less effective. At the level of a country, there's still a kinship. People help their countrymen - something I know of first hand as an expatriate living overseas. People who think big and identify themselves strongly as merely human are more likely to help any human in distress.


At each level, competition exists with other units of similar level. Tribes compete for resources, towns compete for land and water, countries vie with each other over geographical and political advantages. Companies compete with other companies for market share. At every scale, the more effective group survives. Not the strongest, not the fittest - both terms are too simplistic. Most effective.


At every level, there are backstabbers and sneaky fuckers, subverting the good of the group for the good of their own. There are pressures and counter-pressures, defectors, spies, strong leaders, warriors and figureheads, personal imperatives and group imperatives. There is bribery, patronage, treachery and murder, but there is still an underlying drive for social groups to help others within those social groups, because groups that help each other are more effective than groups which don't.


This is not hard to understand, Albert, and this is why you are in my "Raging Fucking Nutbags" column with the creationists, the antivaxxers and the holocaust deniers.


Incidentally, religion is also a unit of social evolution. Religious people band together and can be quite effective, helping the in-group not because a god has told them to, but because groups of humans are more effective with a common social currency. If the person in distress knows the magical gesture of your religion, well, you might help him rather than let him die. That's a  part of religion that makes it effective, for sure, but is it as noble as just seeing someone as human without needing a special symbol or a magical amulet?


Luckily, religion is not as strongly hereditary as it used to be. I'm not sure if it'll ever die out completely, but we'll certainly make it wither on the vine, especially if people as ignorant as you continue to be the ones spreading the word.


Oh, and that line from Dave on certainty? Well done in twisting the sentence beyond recognition and then closing off the comments. Afraid of debate, much?

Jesus can't save you from login errors

From the maniacal gloating department comes this:

From the front page of the Jesus: All About Life campaign.

As they say on the internets: FAIL.

Update: from examining the stack trace, we can see the developer of at least part of the site was "Rod". Hi Rod. Are you proud of this one? Information disclosure FTL. Also, it looks like JAAL are cheaping it up on shared hosting on a machine called HSTPRDWEB01, co-located at hosting. I almost certainly have more processing power running this blog than the entire JAAL campaign does. JAAL shares its IP address with, among others,,,,, and Did Vivid Group build their site?
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