How The Snake Got Its Venom

Question from Robert:
What would be your reasoning as to how the evolution of venomous snakes could have happened? Obviously, the first snakes did not start off with venom glands in their heads. That means that they were getting along just fine without any venom to kill their prey for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. So why in the world would venom glands evolve inside their heads? That is not ‘natural selection’. Indeed, that is completely unnatural. A creature wants to keep poison out of its body! So why would any creature start to make poison inside its body? That makes no sense at all. And it would potentially be extremely dangerous to that creature.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that such a totally bizarre thing occurred. So now what? You have snakes with venom glands in their heads. How in the heck are the snakes supposed to get the venom into their prey? That would be 100% impossible for snakes to do that without hollowed out, syringe-like, very sharp fangs.

That’s a HUGE problem. That means that snakes which somehow evolved venom glands, would then have to evolve syringe like teeth. And there is absolutely no way that could happen because that would require forethought and planning. And it would totally go against the theory of natural selection. Also, by the time that snakes could have strangely evolved syringe like teeth, their venom glands would have already been naturally phased out because those glands would have been totally useless for an extremely long time. But again, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that this second totally bizarre thing occurred. Now snakes would have had to evolve a structure that would connect the venom gland to the syringe like teeth. How could all of these bizarre things happen accidentally? …. or naturally?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t have to rely on my reasoning, not when Scientific American has a full article on this exact subject and Wikipedia has a good summary sitting right there. What the heck, here’s the National Geographic article too. These are literally the first three results when you Google “evolution of snake venom” so I guess you didn’t start there.

The first snakes actually did start off with venom glands because the glands first evolved in the ancestors of snakes, four-legged burrowing lizards more similar to the Komodo dragon. The proteins in venom share DNA with compounds that do other jobs. One is saliva, which breaks down organic material for digestion. Immune system proteins, which attack foreign elements in the body, are another. One compound that isn’t mentioned is stomach acid, but this is another dangerous substance that is essential to normal bodily function. We need poisons in our bodies to survive, only they’re poisons we’re able to tolerate because of how they’re produced and contained. Venom evolved many times over throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, because it has lots to build off.

As for delivery systems, of which there are many, you don’t need much of a starting point. Toads secrete poison on their skin and let it sit there, because the only animals they want to poison are those who try to eat them, so any number of bodily glands could have switched their purpose. Spitting cobras squirt venom forward, so what if they started by just plain spitting, or to be more specific, gleeking? With this technique, even humans can shoot liquid a long way from the body straight from a gland. A gland with a naturally effective nozzle like this can slowly evolve into either a weapon that can be aimed or a hard retractable tube that can inject, because every little bit closer it mutates to either one of these makes for more effective hunting and defense, and ultimately a better chance of survival.

With the specifics covered, let’s look at the overall nature of your challenge because it is VERY similar to those that have come before. You point to something remarkable and ask how it could have happened, and implicitly assert your own explanation by elimination after assuming no good answer is forthcoming. A textbook argument from ignorance (a harsh name, sorry, but the official one) and thus an informal fallacy, which is a failure of the premise of an argument to support its conclusion. It fails for several reasons: obviously it’s rebutted if an alternative answer is presented, but even if not it relies on the assumption that if you and I can’t think of a way then it’s impossible. We’d have to be gods ourselves for this to be true. I point out this fallacy whenever it comes in because it is the basis of many of the arguments for God, and every creationist argument. As a result, these arguments are only good for reassuring yourself and those who agree with you, because by themselves they have little power to persuade.

After The End

Question from Salim:
I was wondering if you had ever considered the possibility of humanity wiping out humanity or our planet (or the universe) getting destroyed. So what if this one day happens? Will we await another big bang to restart life?

Answer by SmartLX:
It could happen. It could also have already happened.

If humanity does something stupid or clueless enough it could well wipe out all life on Earth, which is to say all known life in the universe – emphasis on known, because we can’t discount possible alien life out there somewhere. (Immediately this conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, who commonly believe that only God can destroy the world and He promised not to, so we needn’t worry about the environment at all.)

If everything does die, there’s a possibility that the chemicals still present on the planet could be driven by natural movement (wind, waves, tectonic plates, etc.) towards a second abiogenesis event wherein a new form of life emerges. The circumstances would be very different from 3.5 billion years ago, but since we don’t know exactly what happened it’s not unthinkable that it could happen another way, or the same way in a different place.

The outlook for that new, unrelated life would be somewhat grim. Earth was already about a billion years old when life started the first time, and about a billion years from now the aging sun will grow too hot for Earth to be inhabitable. Our successors would have to evolve the necessary intelligence to achieve space travel much, much faster than we did to have a chance of escaping.

Forget starting from scratch on Earth so late in the piece. Subsequent life will have a much better chance if it starts further out in the solar system, say on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, say Europa. That will give it up to another 4 billion years to achieve interstellar flight before the Sun dies altogether. But then if we’re hypothesising about the best place for life to start elsewhere, the best candidates are almost certainly planets we haven’t discovered around stars we can’t even see (or if we have seen them, we’ve given them names like HR 8799). There are stars whose lifespans or “sequences” are far longer than the Sun’s.

But what if this whole universe is finally a bust, all life dies out and there’s not enough energy left to restart it? If the universe suffers a heat death then nothing further will come of it, and indeed another spontaneous Big Bang or equivalent might be needed for a new universe, and the possibility of new life, to rise. If on the other hand the universe ends in a Big Crunch (looking less likely in the last decade or so) then it might explode outwards again and produce new life by itself.

So yeah, I’ve given it some thought, as do most people who reflect upon modern cosmology. The sheer scale of the things you have to consider can be unsettling to say the least, and that’s before you start on the existential threats we face as a species. People face the subject through humour, through academics, through faith, or not at all. Sometimes it keeps us up at night, but the world can be a scary place at all levels and yet life goes on…for now.

The Pretend Prime Mover

Question from Sue:
Since God is pretend, how did the world come to be?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t know, but there are lots of ideas floating around. We’ve covered it quite a lot here, so try a search or just use this one. Just because the idea of a God explains something doesn’t make it any more likely that there is one.

The History Of The Theories Of The Origin Of Everything

Question from Niki:
Hello Smarty.
The origin of matter? (history of understanding and the latest version)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I found a complete rundown of cosmological models and theories throughout history at the site Physics of the Universe, including religious outlooks and otherwise, so take a look over there.

The overall current scientific view, in a nutshell, is a combination of the last three on the page. There was a Big Bang or comparable event which resulted in all the matter and energy in the universe expanding outward from a tiny point. The matter could have spontaneously emerged from the quantum foam, or come from elsewhere in a larger multiverse, or been recycled from an earlier form of this universe in an endless cycle. Or it could have been created by a god or something. While currently impossible to eliminate, this last possibility is not justifiable as the default position, but that’s how many see it.

On The Beginning And The End Of Life

Question from Tushar:
Just yesterday I watched “Religulous” by Bill Maher who is a noted atheist.
I wanted to ask him some 2 questions but it seems it’s near to impossible to reach him so asking it here supposing it’s an atheist forum.
I have these two questions which if you would please read patiently and answer, I would be grateful to you.

1. He talks about science and if we talk about evolution in a scientific way then the Bible of that would be “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, where he has
accounted for the process of adaptation behind the creation of diverse species he also has categorized them but my question is that it all started with the first living cell which was composed of non-living chemicals, who blew in the life in it, I mean who gave this congregation of chemicals the sense to feel, also who gave them the idea to adapt, adaptation is mainly to survive, who gave them or what gave them the idea to survive rather than to perish?
I mean carbon, oxygen and other chemicals present in the cell don’t have the thinking ability, If you take an oxygen jar it wont talk back with you or if you drop the jar to break I don’t think it would protest or try for the jar to not break, what made the association of these chemicals to “think” that we have to exist and survive and hence “adapt”?

2. It’s been scientifically proven that the human body works on energy, we eat and the food is digested, energy is churned out of this form at the basic level
probably is called ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) I believe, this energy is the fuel for the human heart to pump blood all through our body and also this energy is needed for the natural movement of the muscles and probably for other purposes related to our survival or for the maintenance of the body that we have. In fact we can convert the energy contained in an ATP molecule to Kcal or joules “A molecule of ATP produces just under 1 x 10^-23 kcal” (source). Now when a person dies if the same amount of energy it needs in a day or to function at a moment, if it is arranged for the similar amount of energy to be supplied externally lets say to the heart, will the person come back from the dead or be alive?

I too am a rational (called cynical) thinker but the more I think about the non-existence of GOD studded with scientific facts and statistics the more my belief increases in HIM.

Answer by SmartLX:
1. The process of abiogenesis, the emergence of life from non-living elements, is not yet understood, but to ask “who blew the life in it” is to assume it was deliberately done by someone before it’s established that it had to be intentional. Carbon and oxygen by themselves won’t do much, but the complex chemical compounds being constantly sloshed around 3.5 billion years ago by the tides, winds and tectonic plates had a lot of time, space and materials to get things done. If the right materials were trapped together in a membrane, it was possible to form a configuration that could use the materials outside to make more of itself, but slightly imperfectly. After that, Darwinian natural selection immediately takes over. If you search this site for “abiogenesis” or related terms you’ll find a few pieces on the subject.

2. A person does not die because the heart stops. A person dies because the brain stops receiving oxygen and the cells and connections within are permanently destroyed. You can restart the heart within a certain period with energy applied in the right manner, and this is exactly the purpose of a defibrillator (or just chest compressions), but if you apply energy to the brain it will not reform the cells and restore the connections that existed previously. That information is lost forever, and trying to zap the brain would probably only speed up the process of degradation. It would be like smashing Michaelangelo’s David and then trying to fix it merely by pouring crushed marble on top of it. The amount of matter or energy is far less important than the precise arrangement of it.

From Archaeology to Apes

Question from Kristi:
What is R. Dawkins’ view on Biblical archaeology? Scientists use fossils as artifacts, dinosaur bones, etc., yet when archaeologists find relief carvings of the Hebrews being taken into captivity by the Assyrians? Manfred Bietak has uncovered Semitic people’s remains dating back to time of the Famine around 1880 B.C, which would align with the information in the Jewish records and with the Biblical records of Genesis. Should not any artifact be considered scientific?

If we evolved from a complex organism such as the egg first then later to simpler organism such as the chicken, why are we not evolving anymore unless we are evolving into robots? Do you foresee the human race as fading out and becoming intelligent machines? We were once apes so would it be too much to believe we will re-evolve to something else?

Answer by SmartLX:
Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to have made a public statement about Biblical archaeology as a whole, except to say there is no good evidence for any of the supernatural claims in the Bible, archaeological or otherwise. Evidence for non-supernatural elements of the Biblical narrative are another matter. There is plenty of evidence for the Assyrian captivity as you say. There were Israeli tribes about, no doubt, and they did leave their mark, but nothing in the archaeological record points to direct intervention by a deity with the interests of the Hebrews specifically at heart. Just because not everything in the Bible is untrue doesn’t mean the important bits for today’s believers are true.

Present-day human evolution is much like evolution at any other stage: so slow that any given generation doesn’t notice any major differences. We may be in the process of evolving into a very different form of organic life, but the process would take millions of years at least and research into the changes over the last few decades won’t give us much insight into that far future. Any transition to a machine or part-machine race is likely to be the result of deliberate self-alteration as a species, not Darwinian evolution.

Incidentally we are still apes. Leaving evolution and genetics aside completely, we meet the physical criteria to be classified as a “great ape”. Here’s a museum article.

Mind = Full

Question from Tsahpina:
Hey SmartLX, and the other smarters, what do you think of Buddhism, which, as far as I know, says that when there is pain in your life, you just get away from it mentally, and you are OK. I would say this is bullshit. You?

Answer by SmartLX:
“Get away from it” isn’t an appropriate description of the Buddhist approach to pain. I’d say it’s more a case of compartmentalising it.

Here are two pieces by advocates of the approach; this one by a Buddhist is easy to read and this one by a humanist goes into more depth. The core principle is “mindfulness”, being fully aware of everything that’s happening in your body and mind. That means accepting physical and mental pain as well, but “taking it as read” in a way: yes, there is pain, and now let’s take in everything else and enjoy life. This shift in focus means, in principle, that pain does not have to equal suffering and is possible to live with.

I honestly don’t see a problem with this. It doesn’t rely on anything supernatural, it only suggests a different way of thinking about the inescapable reality that there’s always pain of some kind. A lot of Buddhist practices actually find favour with atheists and humanists precisely because they don’t require the supernatural or even belief itself, only mental effort. Buddhism does have its supernatural claims and dark aspects, but besides a religion it’s an expansive body of work that frequently does its best to be practical.

As for whether it actually works, there has been a lot of research with largely optimistic results, and if you just Google it you’ll be swimming in anecdotes. People aren’t claiming their pain is gone, only that they can bear it better and enjoy life more. Good on them, I say. It’s okay if a healing effect is purely psychological if the malady is too.

Why so aggressive?

Question from Julain:
I have found myself more Gnostic than anything, and I want to ask about a few things.
Why are atheists so aggressive and nitpicky? All of the staunch atheists I’ve met have to make a point about how right they are, then start asking about how their god is real, a dumb question really. So, back to the question, what makes atheists so self-righteous and dogmatic?

The other question I have is simple: Why are staunch atheists so scornful of religion? I, personally, am 100% for meeting up and reminding people to love their fellow man/not tear out neighbor john’s esophagus. You get so dogmatic, so evangelical, as a group, all about something that can not be proven by science. It is not a simple thing we can find, it is transcendent. It was said that “God is dead” for a number of reasons, one of them being that he is no longer objectively provable. On the flipside, we can not disprove him either. I am not saying to believe one way or another. The entire argument is meaningless, though, and that is the important thing- that these people get some kind of sensual, almost erotic joy in a small, meaningless victory that has not changed the world around them.

Why is atheism uniting as a movement? I feel that such a move could be dangerous to the ideas ‘defended’ by it. Skepticism is not going to be found in a large group, that is when you start becoming a unified force instead, with unified ideas. That is the opposite of skepticism.

My final question is why you guys talk about “science” like it is a bible. The thing that keeps this amorphous, shifting mass of ideas moving is the constant search for understanding, knowing that we can always be wrong. Many things are not such. Evolution? Definite, real, we have proof. Red Queen hypothesis? Plausible view of evolution, really more like frame of reference. Those are directly observable. However, then you start getting to physics and cosmology, or almost anything that involves space. In general, we know almost nothing. The average person just flaunts ‘the big bang’ while only knowing the basic framework from wikipedia or a textbook. In the end, we know so little, it is best to reserve judgement.

I say with confidence that I know little, and that I know not what lies beyond the pale of death. Past that? Absolutely nothing.

Answer by SmartLX:
If what you’ve said is true then it’s not true about all the staunch atheists you’ve met, it’s just true about all the staunch atheists who’ve announced themselves to you. Like any group of people, atheists have some among them who can’t entertain the possibility that they might be wrong or allow others to differ in peace, and this can make them abrasive when on the subject. Others, like my father for one, mention it once every few years if at all, and avoid all discussion of it with believers because they know it can cause an argument. In short, you can be a dick about anything and that includes atheism, but when atheists aren’t being dicks you might not even identify them. Engaging people constructively on an emotionally charged subject like faith when you think it’s all unjustified is bloody hard, especially in person.

Many atheists are also anti-theistic, or opposed to religious belief in general, for three reasons. Firstly, it does appear to be misguided to atheists or at least likely to be wrong, and it’s usually in everyone’s interest for people to live their lives according to what’s actually true. Secondly, religious belief can cause great harm in some circumstances (the regular news stories about parents failing to pray away their children’s illnesses are a ready example) while its mental and social benefits can come from other sources instead, so the cost-benefit analysis goes badly for it. Finally, widespread belief makes non-believers a minority, and sometimes a persecuted minority depending on where they are. (I’m not going to Bangladesh in a hurry.)

Many atheists united behind a fresh movement around 2006 for these same reasons, when a group of books on the subject came out together and acted as a catalyst. (New Atheism was a terrible name for it, but there it is.) I disagree that skepticism can’t function in large groups, because if the people question each other then every idea must prove itself. Managing a large group of atheists has been compared to herding cats, so they’re an ideal demographic to put this into practice.

It is indeed folly to dogmatise science, so we simply try not to. If evidence for something is in place, we act and speak with confidence in its reality. If not then we reserve judgement, and that should include the possibility of a god or its influence. But not knowing for sure does not mean all possibilities have equal probabilities, and the concept of a god is so far beyond anything we’ve observed that positing it as an explanation for anything does not make for a useful hypothesis, or an appealing one unless you’re desperate for a simple answer. It raises more questions than it answers anyway.

Spontaneous Creation in Physics

Question from Steve R:
If the big bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, please tell me: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation? I have not found any laws or principles of the physical universe which support the idea of bridging the infinite gap between non-existence (quantity zero) and existence (quantity one) using no previous resources. In fact, I think it’s the opposite – there is a law (and a quite significant law) which clearly state that both matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (1st law of thermodynamics). If there was no one to make this law, then it is just part of the universe. But if it is just part of the universe, then the universe would have to violate its own laws to create itself. So please tell me, again: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation?

Answer by SmartLX:
No law so far, but multiple scientific theories. Lawrence Krauss regularly talks about quantum mechanics spontaneously generating matter and anti-matter, which have a combined energy of zero when there’s the same amount of each, from a previous state which can be called nothingness. (Something can come from nothing, he says, because “nothing” is unstable.) In Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design Hawking makes a claim based on both quantum mechanics and relativity that gravity creates universes and this is only one of them. I recommend reading the work of both to get some idea of the mechanisms science has actually proposed for what you call “spontaneous creation”.

All this may be moot, however, because there is a much simpler solution. As you say, the law of conservation of energy based on the first law of thermodynamics isn’t concerned with the above and states unambiguously that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The universe would therefore have to violate the law to create itself, but if it exists now then the law implies that it has always existed in some form, and it wasn’t created at all.

The idea of anything creating itself from nothing is absurd, because it would mean that the effect existed before the cause. For the idea to make any kind of sense it needs to be an emergence or formation from nothing. Once you get away from the word “create”, it stops being a contest between creation by an intelligent being such as a god and creation by unintelligent phenomena, and seems much more plausible in the absence of a god. This is of course why religious apologists use variants of the word “create” even when they refer to natural hypotheses.

Something to prove, but what?

Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.

The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.

Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.

Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.

On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.