The Biggest Myth

Climate change skeptics most commonly used line of reasoning to combat the reality of human caused global warming is that climate is always changing and that current trends reflect a normal, natural process, as opposed to a dramatic and dangerous human-caused process.  As a well-known climate skeptic Richard Lindzen has stated: “climate is always changing.  We have had ice ages and warmer periods when alligators were found in Spitzbergen.  Ice ages have occurred in a hundred thousand year cycle for the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite CO2 levels being lower than they are now.  More recently, we have had the medieval warm period and the little ice age.”  He continues to defend this position and lend his professional credibility to politicians who want to prevent change.

However, this line of reasoning has a substantial flaw; although climate has changed in the past as a result of natural processes, the rate of change hasn’t been this rapid in millions of years (if not longer).  The rate of change over the past 200-250 years has been so rapid because humans are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere at an unparalleled pace (as stated in a recent Advanced Apes Podcast) (all podcasts can be found here and here)

How are humans doing that?

It is pretty straightforward: greenhouse gas emissions (Karl & Trenberth, 2003).  During the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850 C.E.) humans (primarily in Western Europe, North America and Japan) began burning fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil) for energy, which resulted in profound changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining and transportation.  This revolution represented a turning point in human history because it raised the standard of living for a significant proportion of the human population.  As the industrial revolution intensified and spread throughout the rest of the world the global standard of living (e.g., higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, decreased morbidity, etc.) continued to improve (Maddison, 2003).  However, this revolution and the fossil fuels that allowed it have come with consequences that we will confront in the 21st century: climate change.

What are fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels are actually buried dead organisms (plants) that have undergone a process of anaerobic decomposition, and although we can burn them for energy, they are both finite and primarily composed of the greenhouse gas carbon.  Carbon is not an inherently bad molecule (a fact climate change skeptics consistently use to ‘debunk’ global warming ‘alarmists) but a planet can have ‘too much of a good thing’.  Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases (along with water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone) that strongly regulate the Earth’s atmosphere and temperature.  Throughout the Holocene and Pleistocene carbon dioxide existed in the atmosphere at a rate approximately 280 ppm.  Sometimes it would be a little higher, and sometimes a little lower, but it remained fairly constant.  Over the last 250 years the rate has increased from 280 ppm to 397 ppm.  It continues to rise and this is a significant rise that is directly attributable to the burning of fossil fuels, which comprise approximately 86% of the world’s energy source (EIA International Energy Statistics, 2007).

The Big Picture

If we do not curb our emissions we should expect to increase carbon dioxide to 560 ppm which would result in a global temperature 2-4.5 C higher than the pre-industrial levels.  Although that may not seem like a significant rise it would fundamentally change our planet, and would pose a terrible risk to our civilization.  There would be no arctic sea ice and almost no glaciers, which would lead to a dramatic sea level rise displacing millions and destroying global infrastructure.  Many of the most populous cities (e.g., New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Karachi, Mumbai, Beijing, São Paulo, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Seoul, etc.) are located on the shores of oceans and would need to be completely relocated.  North American super-storms would become the norm (as we just recently saw with Hurricane Sandy), as would Southeast Asian and East Asian super-storms due to rising global temperature.  Ocean acidification would lead to the collapse of ocean ecosystems and many land-based ecosystems would also collapse.  Although most scientific reports suggest that it is unlikely anthropogenic activities could lead to a runaway greenhouse effect (as happened to Venus), previous scientific reports on the effects of global warming have been overly optimistic, and we can’t dismiss the possibility.

Changing is a win-win

The most important point to stress is that even if the 98% scientific consensus is wrong (which it is not), restructuring our energy economy is a necessity anyway.  If we do not wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, our economy will collapse when they are all gone.  As I stated above, fossil fuels are a finite resource.  Our future energy economy must transition to renewable energy resources anyway, we just have the added pressure of transitioning sooner rather than later because if we don’t we may destroy the planet that has allowed our existence.



Karl & Trenberth.  2003.  Modern global climate change.  Science, 302: 1719-23.

Maddison, A.  2003.  The World Economy: Historical Statistics.  Paris: Development Centre, OECD.  pp. 256-62.

U.S. EIA International Energy Statistics (Retrieved Oct 31 2012)


Climate of Doubt (Fear, Corruption, and Lies)


A few days ago I had the pleasure of watching Climate of Doubt, which is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.  Paradoxically, it was also one of the most nauseating.  It focused on the American media and climate change and was hosted by John Hockenberry.  Hockenberry did a fantastic job interviewing several individuals currently involved in the climate debate.  These interviews specifically revealed the reality behind how money in politics has corrupted climate science, consequently destroying policies that could reduce the detrimental affects of human caused global warming.


I remember before the 2008 presidential election (I was just starting my undergraduate degree), the general public throughout North America seemed to accept the fact that global warming was happening, and that humans are the primary cause of that warming.  At the time I had just started to immerse myself in the scientific literature and made a point to read a few of the most influential books out at the time (e.g., An Inconvenient TruthThe Weather Makers).  I was completely convinced that the science was sound – global warming was a reality – and I was excited that the most powerful country on the planet was in the process of electing a president that would implement policies to prevent our planet from experiencing a runaway greenhouse effect.  I felt that if America led the way, other developed countries, and eventually other developing countries, would follow suit.  Many people I knew shared these views and I felt like the scientific and political climate indicated we were going to see real action against climate change.  In my mind, it was one of the best examples of scientific research in action, being used to propose policies that could save our planet and ensure the survival of our species.

Manufacturing Doubt

As the Climate of Doubt showed, this is not the progression that occurred.  It truly made me realize that over the past 4-5 years global warming has been subject to a firestorm of propaganda in the American media, and there has been little to no progress on policies that would help America transition away from a fossil fuel based economy.  Special interest groups, like the American Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity and the American Tradition Institute have ensured that global warming becomes a partisan, divisive issue by pouring millions of dollars into commercials, other forms ofadvertising and books that are designed to make people doubt the reality of global warming.  They have also bought the Republican Party.

So how exactly has this tactic successfully beaten a 97-98% scientific consensus and a National Academy of Science statement that clearly explains “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activity, and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems.” (Anderegg et al., 2010).  Part of it has to do with the media’s approach to discussing divisive issues, and part of it has to do with contrarian scientists twisting data.  Despite the fact that the evidence for climate change is overwhelming the American media approaches the issue as if both sides of the debate have equal validity.  CNN frequently runs headlines like “Is global warming fact or fiction?” as if that is a valid question to ask.  And they will invite a climate scientist to discuss the issue with a contrarian.  This gives the public a reason to doubt whether global warming is happening, and most importantly it reduces the publics willingness to support policies to prevent it.

However, special interest groups are really the heart of the issue.  Professional contrarians likeChristopher Monckton and Fred Singer are hired by these institutes to write books and give presentations at annual ‘climate conferences’ and even in congress.  They fudge data by playing around with the start and end of global climate trend lines and convince people to be “brave enough to do nothing”.  They argue that the climate has always changed and that humans have little to nothing to do with these trends.  They accuse mainstream scientists and democrats of being “socialist” and “alarmists” and argue that policies to reduce carbon emissions will destroy the economy.  With the help of billionaire individuals and companies donating money to protect the energy status quo (e.g.David KochEXXON mobile), these contrarians have successfully built a message of doubt.

This has deeply affected the American political system.  John Kerry explained the situation in the documentary with brutal honesty: “American politics is being completely defined by huge sums of money.  A broad coalition wanted to do something [about climate change].  But as the campaign of fear built up people began to retreat – they [e.g., American Heartland Institute] spent huge sums of money and built major disinformation campaigns that had a profound impact.  This has made many people gun-shy of having those kinds of money spent against them.”  So who are the ‘people’ who began to retreat from the issue of climate change?  That would be the entire GOP.  In 2012, literally the entire Republican Party is against any action on climate change and either believes it is not happening or that humans are not responsible for it.  Republicans who did believe in climate change, like Bob Inglishave had their careers destroyed by the major disinformation campaigns Kerry mentioned.  This has become so extreme and ridiculous that even the Republican Chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, James Sensenbrenner, remains ‘unconvinced’ by the 97% scientific consensus.

Action Now

Unfortunately, preventing a runaway greenhouse effect is not an issue that can wait for an American partisan divide to subside.  Scientists have undeniably revealed that glaciers are melting, temperatures over land and oceans are increasing, humidity is increasing, air temperature is increasing, sea surface temperature is increasing, ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising and sea ice is decreasing (check out Skeptical Science for the Big Picture).  Every decade since we started recording average global temperature has been warmer than the last.  The 2000’s were the hottest on record and 2012 has been the hottest year on record.  Greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide) are increasing in our atmosphere, because of our actions (primarily the burning of fossil fuels), and greenhouse gases have been unequivocally linked to rising global temperature.  Furthermore, scientists already have enough evidence to conclusively state that this warming will continue if we don’t fundamentally restructure our energy economy and the net result of this warming will be horrific for our global civilization.

The good news is that this does not have to be our fate.  But it will take political action.  Now.



Anderegg et al., 2010.  Expert credibility in climate change.  PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107

Recent Discovery of an Earth-sized Exoplanet in Context

Last week a new Earth-sized planet was discovered in a neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri B, which is only 4.3 light years away (Dumusque et al, 2012).  Although this planet is not likely to be a candidate for life, this discovery marks a potential threshold moment in the hunt for a habitable earth-like planet.

Scientists have officially known about the existence of exoplanets – planets beyond our Solar System – since 1992 (even though the first was technically discovered in 1988) (Campbell et al. 1988).  Before this period philosophers and scientists hypothesized that exoplanets existed but there was no empirical evidence to support that assertion.  During the early years of exoplanet detection astronomers had no idea how other solar system would be organized or what type of exoplanets would be found.  From the very beginning the first exoplanets challenged planet and solar system formation theory because they were nothing like we had observed before.  The first exoplanet was found around a pulsar (supernova remnant) and is now thought to have formed in a ‘second round’ of planet formation after the death of the original solar system post-supernova.  Most planets found after that throughout the 1990s were what astronomers called ‘hot Jupiters’.  These planets were large gas giants (like Jupiter) but were found very close to their parent star (around the same distance as Mercury is to our star).  These worlds were bizarre with orbits, sizes, formation histories and climates that were alien compared to the planets and structure of our Solar System.  These early discoveries also revealed that many solar systems could not support the stable existence of an earth-like planet.

However, throughout the past ten years exoplanet detecting technologies improved and exoplanet hunting became an exciting field of research.  The pace of exoplanet finds has been accelerating at a near-exponential pace (Schneider, 2011) and it seems like every year astronomers get closer and closer to finding that ‘goldilocks’ planet.  Some planets have been found directly by using techniques like gravitational microlensing, and some planets have been found indirectly by using techniques like radial velocity.

Throughout the early 2000s scientists started to report on the existence of ‘super-Earths’, which were terrestrial planets double or triple the size of Earth.  These planets orbits and atmospheric composition varies tremendously, there is evidence for water on a few of them, but none found to date are likely to be in the habitable zone around their host star.  Despite this, these planets represent a great opportunity for astronomers to find a potentially habitable planet and because of that the European Space Agency (ESA) will be deploying the CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite (Cheops).  Cheops has been designed specifically to hunt for a super-Earth within the goldilocks zone of its host star and as a result identify nearby habitable planets.

As promising as super-Earths seem to be, the holy grail of the exoplanet search is finding an Earth-sized planet in the goldilocks zone.  NASA’s Kepler telescope partially achieved this last year whenastronomers detected the first Earth-sized planet located in the Kepler-20 star system (946 light years from Earth and with 4 other planets) (Fressin et al., 2011).  However, this planet was much closer to its host star than Earth is to our sun and therefore is probably more like Venus than Earth.

The planet found last week, tentatively titled Alpha Centauri Bb, is lighter than the Earth-sized planet found in the Kepler-20 star system, and unfortunately not within the habitable zone, but it is only 4.3 light years away (as opposed to 946 light years away) (Dumusque et al., 2012).  This means that astronomers now have evidence, which indicates Earth-sized planets are just as numerous as larger planets and that they exist in our stellar neighbourhood.  Although this is not as profound or significant a finding as finding a planet like Earth, it is a significant step in the right direction, and a finding that would have been unimaginable only 20 short years ago.  And perhaps more importantly, this finding continues an impressive trend in astronomy towards more refined detection techniques that have continually revealing new planets that are ever more Earth-like.  To me, this indicates that if the rate of exoplanet discovery continues, we may find a planet just like Earth in a few short years.  If true, it would forever change our understanding and perspective of humanity and Earth.


Campbell et al., 1988.  A search for substellar companions to solar-type stars.  Astrophysical Journal, 331: 902-921.

Dumusque et al., 2012.  An Earth-mass planet orbiting a Centauri B.  Nature

Fressin et al., 2011.  Two Earth-sized planets orbiting Kepler-20.  Nature, 482: 195-198.

Schneider, J.  2011.  Interactive extra-solar planets catalog.  The Extrasolar Planets Encyclodia.

An Idea to Change All Ideas

Ray Kurzweil is a prolific inventor and futurist that has been called ‘the ultimate thinking machine’ by Forbes, has been awarded the Arthur C. Clarkes ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ and has released three of the most influential books of the past two decades (i.e. The Age of Intelligent MachinesThe Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near) (e.g., Kurzweil, 1990; 1999; 2005).  I became aware of his work in 2005 when he released The Singularity Is Near and have been a ‘singultarian’ ever since.

What Is The Singularity?

Simply put the technological singularity is an intellectual event horizon beyond which nothing can be predicted because biological humans will no longer be the smartest, most capable life forms on the planet.  Either post-biological human cyborgs will be, some type of advanced A.I. robotic entities will be, or both.

Ray Kurzweil and other futurists believes that this event is easily predictable due to the Law of Accelerating Returns, which results in computer technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and material science technology to increase at an exponential rate (Kurzweil, 2005).  In the 1980s Kurzweil used the Law of Accelerating Returns to predict accurate dates for the explosive (exponential) growth of the World Wide Web, the completion of the human genome project, ubiquitous portable and ‘pocket-sized’ computers, wearable personal computer devices, digital media and software, stored virtual reality environments, wireless technologies, supercomputers with the hardware capacity of the human brain, etc. (Kurzweil, 1990, Kurzweil, 2010).  In October 2010 he released an analysis of his 109 past predictions and evaluated their current status: 89 were entirely correct, 13 were essentially correct, 5 are a few years off and 1 was completely wrong (Kurzweil, 2010).  However, the entirety of his predictions cannot yet be evaluated because they extend to the 2040s, when he believes ‘human-machine’ civilization will reach the technological singularity.

Leading up to the Event Horizon: 2045

Moving forward Kurzweil believes that the pace of technological exponential growth will continue and will follow a very predictable pattern, as it did in the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century.  The ramifications of continued technological exponential growth become slightly overwhelming (Kurzweil, 2005):


  • Computers will disappear as distinct physical objects and become embedded in clothing and in everyday objects
  • Displays built into our eyeglass will provide full-immersion audio-visual virtual reality
  • House cleaning robots will become common
  • High speed internet will become globally ubiquitous


  • Personal computers will have same processing power as the human brain
  • Nanomachines will be used for medical purposes
  • Virtual reality will become indistinguishable from reality
  • Strong A.I. (2029) will be as intelligent as a human (pass the Turing Test)
  • Most vehicles will be 100% computer controlled


  • Full-immersion virtual reality will be possible without external equipment
  • Nanomachines will re-wire human brain allowing for expansion of cognitive, memory and sensory capabilities
  • All technologically augmented humans will be able to interact telepathically via wireless networks


  • Human body 3.0 comes into existence.  It lacks a fixed, corporeal form and can later its shape and external appearance.  All organs are replaced by superior cybernetic implants.
  • Artificial intelligence and/or postbiological cyborgs will surpass human beings as the smartest most capable life forms.  Technological development completely overtaken by machines who think, act and communicate so quickly that unenhanced biological humans cannot even comprehend what is going on.

At this point Kurzweil believes that we cannot predict with a high degree of accuracy what will happen after the singularity because technological growth will be driven by a different form of intelligence and will be moving so quickly (Kurzweil, 2005).  However, this singularity will completely change the course of human history (or ‘human-machine’ history) and it can be reasonably asserted that post-singularity there will be a true radiation of intelligence from Earth into the rest of the universe.  If Kurzweil’s predictions about the coming decades are anywhere near as accurate as they were in the 1980s, this appears to be our destiny.

Incorporating Big History

It is important to note that the pace of exponential technological growth did not come out of a vacuum.  Almost all experts on big history (i.e. history from the big bang to the present) have understood for a while that levels of complexity in the universe appear to increase at an exponential rate.  Under this paradigm technological evolution and the singularity is the end product of an exponential trend that has characterized the basic structure of the universe for the past 13.7 billion years (Sagan, 1977; Christian, 2005):

  • Big Bang (13.7 billion years ago)
  • Development of first stars and galaxies (8-10 billion years ago)
  • Formation of the sun and our solar system (5 billion years ago)
  • First life (3.5 billion years ago)
  • First multicellular life (1 billion years ago)
  • Cambrian explosion (530 million years ago)
  • Mammals (200 million years ago)
  • Primates (70 million years ago)
  • Apes (20 million years ago)
  • Genus Homo/Technology (2 million years ago)
  • Domestication of fire (500 thousand years ago)
  • First modern humans (200 thousand years ago)
  • First art (100 thousand years ago)
  • Early cities/agriculture (10 thousand years ago)
  • Writing, wheel (5 thousand years ago)
  • Printing, experimental method (500 years ago)
  • Industrial Revolution (250 years ago)
  • Telephone, electricity, radio (100 years ago)
  • Computer (60 years ago)
  • Personal computer (30 years ago)

During the first stage of the universe the most complex structures were held in particles and atoms and significant change took billions of years.  With the formation of planets and stars (like Earth and the Sun) the universe entered a new stage of complexity with structures capable of growth and self-sustainment (i.e. organisms).  After the emergence of life change continued to occur exponentially.  Change occurred via biological evolution and took thousands of generations.  The next level of complexity was achieved with the development of technology, which has continued the exponential trend.  Now change is measured in decades and even years.  Will that culminate in a universe-altering technological singularity?  If history is any indication it may be unavoidable.


Christian, D.  2005.  Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.  University of California Press

Kurzweil, 1990.  The Age of Intelligent Machines.  The MIT Press.

Kurzweil, 1999.  The Age of Spritual Machines.  Penguin Books.

Kurzweil, 2005.  The Singularity Is Near.  Penguin Books.

Kurzweil, R.  2010.  How My Predictions Are Faring.

Sagan, C.  1977.  The Dragon’s of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence


Welcome to the Strange World of Ken Ham

On August 31 2012 Ken Ham, president of the Creation Museum, released a video response to Bill Nye’s viral “Big Think” entry “Creationism Is Not Appropriate for Children” (Ham, 2012).  Within Ham’s response we get a chance to dissect how Young Earth Creationists (YEC’s) perceive science, scientists and education.

Welcome to the strange world of Ken Ham:

Ken Ham: “What does evolution have to do with engineering? […] I don’t want to be flying in anything that was built by ‘chance’ ‘random processes’ – what do you think?  You lay them parts all out on the runway and they come together or something?”

Ken Ham creates this apparent divide between “observational science” and “historical science” suggesting that these fundamentally different types of science that have no benefit to one another and that evolution falls within the “historical sciences” and engineering falls within the “observational sciences”.

First off, every actual professional academic would acknowledge that this divide is purely artificial.

Secondly, evolutionary scientists are not just interested in understanding natural history.  They are also interested in testing observable hypotheses that can produce products that have a beneficial impact on human health and safety (i.e. production of antibiotics).

Third, nobody with a background in evolutionary science (except perhaps Ken Ham who has a degree in environmental biology) would think that an evolutionary theorist would suggest to an engineer to build a plane ‘randomly’, because evolution is not random.

Evolution is a process of selection and adaptation to particular environments, which is theory engineers can greatly benefit from.  In fact, one of the most profitable fields of engineering at the moment is biomimetics.  In biomimetics, engineers work with evolutionary biologists to understand how animals have adapted to unique environments in novel ways in order to help construct products that will also aid human civilization.  Some good examples of this include velcro (inspired by the hooked barbs of thistle), highway reflectors (inspired by cat eyes), catheters that can repel germs (inspired by shark skin), X-ray machines (inspired by the lobster’s eye) and several more (Bar-Cohen, 2005).  Engineers have also worked with molecular biologists to understand how cellular structures function in order to develop new nano-technologies (Sarikaya et al. 2002).  To be honest, explaining how engineer’s benefit from evolutionary theory could be an article in and of itself.

On one final note before moving on, many engineers, evolutionary biologists and economists believe that biomimetics and related fields will dominate science and technology industries in the coming decades.  So to answer Ken Ham’s question, “what does evolution have to do with engineering?” I would respond, “everything.”

Ken Ham: “Take generations of kids and teach them that they are just animals, that there is no god.  You’re a result of millions of years of evolutionary processes, you just came from some slime.”

Ham’s use of terminology with this comment displays how YEC’s use language to make evolution sound ridiculous.  No evolutionary biologist would ever say that we evolved ‘from slime’.  In actuality, contemporary biologists believe that all life originated from chemicals on the early Earth that produced self-replicating RNA-like molecules (Joyce, 2002).  And of course, ribonucleic acid (RNA) is not slime.  RNA is a nucleic acid that is essential for the functioning of all life on our planet.  Without RNA our cells would not be able to communicate with each other or express genetic information (Wu & Belasco, 2008).  Helping kids understand the function of the chemical building blocks of life is far from teaching them that we “came from slime”.

Ken Ham: “When it comes to bones, like dinosaur bones, you don’t dig them up with labels telling you how old they are, or photographs telling you when they lived, [Bill Nye] doesn’t teach children how to think critically.”

I honestly can’t believe Ham seriously included this in his video response.  This was part of his diatribe against “historical science” and this truly displays his lack of understanding in regard to how paleontologists and molecular biologists piece together the narrative of the evolution of life.  Unfortunately for Ken Ham, dinosaur fossils do come with a label telling us approximately how old they are, and we can read that label with radiometric dating techniques with spectrometers.

By utilizing radiometric-dating techniques scientists are able to analyze the chemical composition of the fossil.  Chemicals, like carbon or uranium, decay at a predictable rate as soon as an organism dies and by reading the chemical composition of a fossil you can understand how long it has been since the organism took its last breath.  Some chemicals, like carbon for example, are helpful to determine the age of modern human bones (e.g., Grun, 2006), but decay too quickly to help us understand the age of a dinosaur fossil.  So paleontologists must analyze chemical elements with a longer decay rate, like uranium or argon (e.g., Rogers et al. 1993; Fasset, 2011).

Ken Ham: “The way to convince kids about evolution, you have to do Bill Nye The Humanist Guy wants, you protect them from hearing anything about creation, you totally indoctrinate them, you brain wash them, you don’t teach them to think critically at all, you don’t teach them the difference between historical science and observational science, you just want to make sure they only hear about evolution and that’s it.”

I can only interpret this as projection, because if you replace the words ‘evolution’ with ‘creationism’ and replace ‘Bill Nye’ with ‘Ken Ham’ that is exactly what you need to do to get a child to believe in creation.  No evolutionary scientist wants to indoctrinate children or force them to never read or learn anything about religion.  And more importantly, no scientist is intimidated by the idea that a child will never believe in evolution if they read religious text.  In fact, most scientists believe the exact opposite; Isaac Asimov said it best: “Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”  (Asimov, 1966).  Most academics, including myself, believe strongly that children should learn about religion because it is an important to understand the history and the contemporary cultural impact of religious institutions.  That is the opposite of indoctrination that is trying to teach children to think critically.

There are several more questionable comments in the video by Ken Ham.  I just wanted to debunk and counter the most confusing and absurd points he made.  Of course, I encourage you to check it out for yourself below and decide for yourself what you think.

Evolutionary Thought Pre-Darwin pt. 2

A few weeks ago I wrote an article focused on evolutionary thought in the Ancient world, which was designed to be a two-part blog entry.  Within that article I wanted to start explaining how there has been a long tradition of evolutionary thought.  In part 2 of this series I want to explain the type of intellectual environment that was developing in the centuries leading up to Darwin and Wallace’s famous break through.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Christian philosophers easily adopted teleological thought.  Throughout the Middle Ages some Christian thinkers knew of the idea of natural selection but dismissed it in favour of teleology (Kaye, 2006).  Philosophers like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 C.E.) believed that all organisms had been created in their perfect state and remained in that state, therefore, not changing at all over time (Gilson, 2009).  Despite the fact that there were a few ‘radical’ individuals throughout these centuries who would not just believe in a teleological view of nature simply because of the authoritative sources who purported its ‘Truth’, these views would not be challenged in any significant way until the late 18th century.


During the Enlightenment the European scientific scene began openly discussing the issue of the structure and history of life.  Throughout the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century European scientists of various academic backgrounds began considering evolutionary theories.  Some of the problems for these ‘evolutionists’ became understanding the aqueous origin of the terrestrial globe, the decrease of the sea level, the emergence of land and the adaptation of marine life to surface and atmospheric conditions (Corsi, 2005).  The most common theory to explain evolution was the theory of climates and their influence on all living forms.  Bernard Germain Etienne da la Ville (1756-1825 C.E.) was a major proponent of climatic theories and frequently made analogies between ‘domesticated’ and ‘wild’ animals and how the ‘climate’ could modify organisms over time (Corsi, 2005).  Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829 C.E.) and his followers offered a competing perspective, which proposed an explanation for biological change over time that operated through the heritability of acquired characteristics (Moore, 1981).  Lamarck believed that organisms adapt to their environment and that any traits that an organism acquired throughout its lifetime could be passed onto its offspring, therefore leading to increased perfection and complexity in organisms (Moore, 1981).  In Britain Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802 C.E.) had independently come to a similar conclusion in his most influential work Zoonomia in which he proposed the theory of the succession of life forms through successive adaptation (Corsi, 2005).

These early evolutionary theories fell out of favour with many prominent European naturalists shortly after they were first proposed.  Some of the most vocally resistant naturalists of Lamarckianism and climate-based theories were Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Robert Chambers (1802-1871), Richard Owen (1804-1892) and George Cuvier (1769-1832) (Moore, 1981; Appel, 1987).  Charles Lyell was a British geologist, not a biologist.  However, his revolutionary ideas about uniformitarianism had given many biologists an alternative way to understand natural history without resorting to theories whose explanatory power relied on the biblical flood (Anderson, 2007).  As a result Lyell was immersed in many evolutionary debates while writing Principles of Geology.  He commended Lamarck for being ‘courageous’ and ‘logical’ enough to understand that humans must have evolved from an ‘Ourang-Outang’, but he was also clear that he believed Lamarck had not discovered the mechanism of evolution (Lyell, 1881).  Robert Chambers, although first receptive to Lamarck’s ideas, later became critical of them.  He maintained that species had evolved through the indirect and heritable influence of the environment, but believed that organisms could only pass on characteristics acquired during the embryonic stage of life (Moore, 1981).  Richard Owen and George Cuvier were also resistant to Lamarckianism, and instead proposed an ‘organizing energy’ that directed the growth of tissues and determined the lifespan of an individual.  They were both vehemently opposed to Lamarck’s incorporation of transmutation (Moore; 1981; Appel, 1987).

However, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) each ‘re-discovered’ the theory of natural selection independently before 1859.  Charles Darwin had been working on the theory for over two decades before Charles Lyell, Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), Joseph Hooker (1814-1879) and other accomplished English naturalists convinced him that he needed to publish his work (Keynes, 1997; McCalman, 2009).  Darwin had been hesitant to publish his ideas due to the unstable and turbulent socio-political environment within Britain throughout the 1840s and 1850s, and also feared disrupting the personal dynamics of his family life (McCalman, 2009).  He started writing his masterwork on the theory of natural selection in 1856, but only two years later; Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin a letter, which revealed that Wallace had independently formulated his own theory of natural selection (Keynes, 1997).  Darwin was shattered and admitted to Charles Lyell that he had ‘never saw a more striking coincidence’ (Keynes, 1997: 470).  In 1858, the Linnean Society of London acknowledged both Darwin and Wallace as the proponents of this hypothesis, and thought it fair if Lyell and Hooker both presented on behalf of Wallace and Darwin at the next meeting of the Linnean Society to introduce the world to the theory of natural selection (Kutschera, 2003).

It was a long road to Darwin but that does not take away from the enormous impact the theory of evolution by natural selection has made.  Whether historians and scientists have taken the view that Darwin was a re-discoverer or co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, they have always been intrigued as to how a young Englishman from Kent independently formulated one of the most important scientific theories in human history.


Why New Religions?

Originally posted on

Last night, I saw a movie entitled “The Master,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, which tells the story of a World War II veteran in 1950 who becomes involved in a new religious movement. After officially stating that the “The Master” is not based on the story of L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, director Paul Thomas Anderson has recently acknowledged “that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was the inspiration for the title character in “The Master,” but [that] the focus of the film is the relationship between a charismatic spiritual leader and his troubled follower, not the movement itself.” (Associated Press, September 1, 2012)

Inspired by Anderson’s exploration of the early days of the Church of Scientology, I found myself asking the following questions: Why do people join cults and new age religions? Why have these cults and religions grown so rapidly over the past 50 years (Dawson, 2006)?

First, we must ask ourselves a few important questions: What is a cult? What is a new age religion? And how do these differ from traditional religions?

Contemporary sociologists do not actually differentiate between cults and ‘new religious movements’ (NRMs), but see them rather as similar human phenomena (Dawson, 2006). However, cults and NRMs are generally understood to be distinct from traditional religions, even though scientists and politicians alike appear to have difficulty explaining what it is about cults and NRMs that makes them different from traditional religions. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has suggested that the only difference is that cults and NRMs are modern developments, whereas traditional religions have gained increased validity with the “passage of time” (Dawkins, 2007). Other scholars see them as different because they are “assigned to the fringe of the dominant religious culture” (Lewis, 2004).

Scientology is certainly a good example of how the lines between traditional religions and NRMs can become blurred. Although Scientology’s bible, Dianetics, states that Scientology “fulfills the goal of religion” from a “standpoint of reason” (Hubbard, 1950), the origin and internal structure of Scientology is strikingly similar to that of any major traditional religion (Cowan & Bromley, 2008), and its claims about the universe stem from unwavering faith in the beliefs and opinions of one man (Cowan & Bromley, 2008).

However, unlike traditional religions, Scientology is an extremely controversial institution throughout the Western world, and has struggled to gain tax-exempt status in many countries (e.g., Italy, Germany, Greece, Australia). Perhaps as a result of this, practitioners can sometimes expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete their ‘training’ (Cowan & Bromley, 2008). Despite the controversy surrounding Scientology and the deep pockets that are required of new members, this NRM has succeeded in attracting more than 9 million members worldwide, with more than 6,000 churches in 159 countries (Dawson, 2006).

Scientology is not the only NRM that has become a major cultural presence in the modern Western world. There are major NRMs associated with Asian traditions of philosophy, devotion, meditation and magic (e.g., Elan Vital), the human potential movement (e.g., Scientology), occult revival (e.g., Wicca), New-Age groups (e.g., Ramtha and the Church Universal and Triumphant), and UFO’s and aliens (e.g., Heaven’s Gate) (Dawson, 2006). Each of these new movements have well over 100,000 members.

The pervasiveness and growing influence of NRMs are truly startling. We cannot help but ask ourselves how Scientology (and other NRMs), unarmed with empirical or scientific evidence to support their assertions, have become so powerful in the modern world. As I wrote in an earlier post, people who adhere to a religious tradition are not doing so because of any persuasive arguments in favor of the existence of a god or because of the scientific legitimacy of any religion. As the film “The Master” shows, and as the findings discussed in the following paragraph will demonstrate, NRMs satisfy important socio-cultural needs, most of which are related to a deep-seated desire to build and maintain strong social relationships. By understanding the needs that are satisfied by NRMs, secular societies may be able to combat the rise of these new religions.

Over the past 30 years sociologists have studied the reasons for which people join NRMs. Early research revealed that individuals who joined NRMs shared certain characteristics, including (1) a societal grievance; and (2) a strong interpersonal bond with NRM recruiters (Stark & Bainbridge, 1980). Researchers have since built upon these earlier studies, collecting data and refining their scientific understanding of NRM recruitment. Currently, academics have identified three main characteristics that are shared by individuals who join NRMs (Dawson, 2006):

1) Pre-existing social networks and interpersonal bonds (i.e. friends tend to recruit friends; family members tend to recruit family members)

2) Affective ties between members (i.e. the quality of the strength of social bonds developed between members)

3) Intensive interaction with new members (i.e. daily routines to prevent and/or reverse rapid disintegration of the group)

Other statistically important aspects of NRM recruitment include:

4) Weak extra-cult social ties

5) Weak ideological alignments (i.e. no affiliation or experience in a religion)

6) Seekership (i.e. people seeking answers to ‘big questions’ in life)

7) Direct rewards (i.e. people seeking an institution that will heighten self-esteem and give them a sense of power or control)

Although NRM members seem to share a desire to seek out the answers to the greater questions in life, this does not seem to be the most important characteristic. Clearly, the characteristics which appear to be the most significant among NRM members have mainly to do with the desire to build and maintain strong social relationships.

NRMs appear to function as institutions that provide people with a strong social network where they can bond with other people and develop a sense of community. As explored in The Master, NRMs prey on the lonely, the lost, and the wandering, using them to gain power, money and prestige. Therefore, denying these organizations tax-free status is not a strong enough measure if we as a society wish to reduce the influence and the growth of these organizations. To be effective, we must recognize that individuals in secularized communities may have lost institutions like churches, temples, and community centers which, in the past, may have served a basic human need, i.e. the relief of loneliness.

I will leave you with the following questions: Can secular societies find a way to relieve human loneliness? If so, how?

Dawkins, R. 2007. The root of all evil?