Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Each of these pillars of dust and hydrogen gas are so vast that they would dwarf our sun. It is in the interiors of such enormous concentrations of hydrogen that astronomers believe stars are formed:

The photo was taken by the Hubble Space telescope.


Amazing Behavior

Dave Scot at Uncommon Descent introduces us to the Emerald Cockroach Wasp and tells us how it gets on in life. As you read this, which you really must, just for laughs try to imagine someone trying to convince you that there is a perfectly plausible, purely mechanistic explanation for how the wasp's behavior came to be:

The emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa, also known as the jewel wasp) is a parasitoid wasp of the family Ampulicidae. It is known for its reproductive behavior, which involves using a live cockroach (specificially a Periplaneta americana) as a host for its larva. A number of other venomous animals which use live food for their larvae paralyze their prey. Unlike them, Ampulex compressa initially leaves the cockroach mobile, but modifies its behaviour in a unique way.

As early as the 1940s it was published that wasps of this species sting a roach twice, which modifies the behavior of the prey. A recent study using radioactive labeling proved that the wasp stings precisely into specific ganglia. Ampulex compressa delivers an initial sting to a thoracic ganglion of a cockroach to mildly paralyze the front legs of the insect. This facilitates the second sting at a carefully chosen spot in the cockroach's head ganglia (brain), in the section that controls the escape reflex. As a result of this sting, the cockroach will now fail to produce normal escape responses.

The wasp, which is too small to carry the cockroach, then drives the victim to the wasp's den, by pulling one of the cockroach's antennae in a manner similar to a leash. Once they reach the den, the wasp lays an egg on the cockroach's abdomen and proceeds to fill in the den's entrance with pebbles, more to keep other predators out than to keep the cockroach in.

The stung cockroach, its escape reflex disabled, will simply rest in the den as the wasp's egg hatches. A hatched larva chews its way into the abdomen of the cockroach and proceeds to live as an endoparasitoid. Over a period of eight days, the wasp larva consumes the cockroach's internal organs in an order which guarantees that the cockroach will stay alive, at least until the larva enters the pupal stage and forms a cocoon inside the cockroach's body. After about four weeks, the fully-grown wasp will emerge from the cockroach's body to begin its adult life.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the preceding account.

We are confronted here with two alternatives: Either every step of this behaviour was solely the product of perhaps dozens of chance mutations at just the right place in the genome and in just the right order - and that the individuals that had those mutations bestowed upon them fortuitously survived to reproduce - or we can believe that whether mutations and natural selection were involved or not, there must have been some intentionality behind the development of this sequence of behaviors. In other words, whatever the physical processes at work in generating such an astonishing program in the brain of an insect, they were not, by themselves, sufficient to produce that program. The wasp's behavior also requires a mind to account for how it could have arisen in the first place.

Those are the two choices. And the Darwinians, who opt for the first alternative, scoff at those who think a mind must be behind this insect's behavior. Belief in a Designer, they say, is based on a fairy tale. Believing in an Architect of insect behavior is too incredible, they aver. As if the option they embrace were not.


Ten Myths About Atheism (Pt. III)

The third alleged myth in our series (See pt. I and pt. II) on Sam Harris' Ten Myths About Atheism is, he writes, the incorrect belief that Atheism is dogmatic. He goes on to explain:

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

It's not clear to me what Harris' explanation has to do with the assertion that atheism is dogmatic, but if the reason an atheist rejects the existence of God is because he rejects the doctrine of Divine inspiration of the Bible (or Koran) then the poor fellow seems to have gotten things backwards. Believers don't base their belief in God upon their belief that the Bible is God's word, rather their belief that it's God's word is based on their belief that God exists. Belief in God's existence is prior to belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible. Even were the Bible proven to be a completely human artifact that would demonstrate nothing with regard to whether God exists.

If Harris is going to deny the existence of God he has to show that the classical reasons for believing in God are all false and this arduous feat he wisely does not attempt. The most that Harris can say, it seems to me, is that, for him, the arguments for God's existence are not compelling, and thus, although such a being as God may exist, he personally is not convinced of it.

For New Atheists like Harris, however, this is simply too tepid. What they believe is not just that God may not exist, they assert that, in fact, He does not exist, and they hold anyone who believes He does to be intellectually defective. That seems pretty dogmatic to me.