Question from Blink:
Hi guys. A theist asked me this question.
“Why are our eyes (not the anus) placed near our nose? Can you imagine how disturbing it would be if it were placed below our nose in place of our mouth!”
This is one of the many reasons why he believes in God.
I don’t know how to respond to this question, my instinct tells me maybe it has something to do with evolution. What is the appropriate respond to his question? Thanks.
Answer by SmartLX:
The anus is placed away from the mouth and nose because if any of our ancestors had developed the two close together, the species would have quickly been wiped out by anal-oral and anal-respiratory infections. On the other hand, the anus is placed near the genitalia and there’s a constant risk of infection between the two because that kind of infection isn’t usually enough to cause a major obstacle to survival, and there hasn’t been any major selection pressure to change it.
To make the same point more generally, if something being the case confers some kind of survival advantage, or if the alternative would make survival difficult, evolution is likely to encourage it to happen, because life will be easier at every stage for those who are closer to the ideal. Bad “ideas” are weeded out when the life forms that manifest them die.
But forget about evolution for a minute. Your theist asks why a particular thing is the case, and implies that if you don’t know, God must have done it. How utterly arrogant to think that just because the two of you may not be aware of any other explanations, reality must align perfectly with what HE thinks. This is a classic argument from ignorance, and the more people know what that is, the better for logic and reason in the world.
Question from Ken:
I’m agnostic. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to understand about evolution for a while, and I hope this is the place to get it answered.
When I learnt about it, in school and university, they expressed the idea of increment changes (whether modifications of traits that were already there, or new traits through mutation) over time, passed on through generations, “chosen” by the ability to procreate and pass on genes. That, I think I get for the most part.
But what I never really understood is how the number of chromosomes could change over time. How can chromosome numbers increase and decrease? I mean… let’s say an individual somehow has it happen, shouldn’t he or she be unable to produce viable (or fertile?) offspring with others of the species because of the wrong numbers of chromosomes? How does chromosome number change at all? The only way I know is through issues that happen in meiosis, the kind of stuff that causes Down’s Syndrome, and the XXY and X gender chromosomal abnormalities that cause problems in humans.
So, my question is: How can chromosome number change in to produce a viable, fertile individual for it to be able to spread to an entire species?
Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a good question because a sudden whole extra chromosome full of junk, or a whole one gone missing, can indeed cause serious defects. That said, it helps to remember that a chromosome is merely a container of genes, and the number of chromosomes has very little to do with the amount of genetic information in each.
The addition of a chromosome is the more complex process, so I’m linking to an explanation of one mechanism by PZ Myers. Essentially, one chromosome’s worth of genes ends up being shared by two, and at first it can interact just fine with the old combined chromosome because the total sequence is the same. This does introduce a higher rate of error until individuals with the split chromosome start mating with each other, at which point there’s no longer a downside. Once the new number of chromosomes is settled, each chromosome is free to mutate independently and add new genetic information in the usual ways.
As for a reduction in chromosomes, we need look no further than our own genome. Our #2 chromosome pair is equivalent to two separate chromosome pairs in our closest ape relatives, but fused together. You can tell because there are two end markers (telomeres) right in the middle of it. No genetic information was lost, it was merely repackaged. This, importantly, is a very clear example of the kind of predictions one is able to make using evolutionary theory: the number of chromosomes in our genome compared to our ancestors’ (i.e. one less) tells us that exactly one fusion must have occurred, and we can then check the genome for only one extra set of markers.
If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?
Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to And The Rest, a potential new series where visitors and I try our best to create serious, concise, easy-to-understand answers to the most ignorant, misguided rhetorical questions and other hopeless arguments posed by theists who think they’ve got the ultimate trump card.
When you get one of these it betrays such lack of understanding and willingness to parrot propaganda that you may get angry and refuse to answer it; most of the time this will simply send the message that it works as rhetoric. I’d rather work on a library of straightforward answers which can be passed on and spread as wide as the questions themselves, until it’s inconceivable in each case that the question was ever given merit by anyone.
Right then, the monkey question is the classic example, so here’s my attempt to clear it up as quickly and simply as possible:
“Because not all the monkeys evolved into humans. Most of them evolved into other kinds of monkeys. They had different offspring like any family does. [Bonus semantics if you’re snarky:] And technically it was apes, not monkeys.”
Think you can come up with something more elegant? You’re probably right, so have a go in the comments. Otherwise, comment with some other faux “stumpers” we should cover in this series. Cheers.
Question from Bryan:
Why is radiometric dating considered accurate? I will give two examples, one speculative and one based on actual observations:
I understand half-life, log base-2 calculations and radiometric decay. What I don’t understand is how we assume a starting point for radionuclides v/s daughter nuclides. For example, what if the meteorite that hit the earth and killed the dinosaurs (or any other large meteorite) was a big ball of lead? We have not found traces of it, therefore, we can only speculate what it could have contained. If it were a big ball of lead and mixed with the elements on earth, it would give the appearance that more U-238 half lives had occurred and give falsely high age outputs. (Granted, this is probability based, so is the statement that the meteorite wasn’t lead). This is just one possibility of something that could throw off parent-daughter nuclide ratio. It could have easily just been that there was more lead on earth than we previously thought at the beginning.
This one is not speculation. C-14 dating depends on two things:
1. That production rate and loss rate have been in equilibrium for an extended amount of time, and
2. The equilibrium ratio has not changed in an extended amount of time.
C-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when various forms of cosmic radiation produce thermal neutrons. A N-14 atom nucleus collides and absorbs the neutron and ejects a proton, thus, making C-14. This process is attenuated by the existence of the earth’s magnetic field. The stronger the magnetic field, the lower the production rate of C-14, therefore, the ratio of C-14:C12 would be initially more weighted to C-12, and therefore, give a falsely older output. The earth’s magnetic field has decreased 10% since Mathematician Gauss started observing it. This decrease is exponential. In the year 7800 BC (rounded) the magnetic field would have been approximately 128 times stronger than it is now, based on current observations of the decay rate of the magnetic field. This would have caused 100% decrease in C-14 production. (Which also begs the question, how C-14 is in fossils that are millions of years old? – throw in the half life of C-14 being only 5700 years (rounded) with that question too). In fact, Dr. Libby noted that the C-14:C-12 ratio was NOT in equilibrium when designing the test, and subsequently decided to assume equilibrium anyway. So why is this test considered accurate when there is definite evidence to the contrary?
Answer by SmartLX:
Radiometric dating is not considered universally accurate. It’s a measurement like any other, there are any number of ways to get it wrong, and there are documented examples of when it has gone wrong. Despite this, it’s been successfully used to accumulate a mountain of evidence that the world is older than a literal interpretation of the Bible would lead one to believe. The threat to Biblical literalism really is the only reason anyone challenges the principle anymore, and it’s also the only reason why you would ask a question like this on Ask The Atheist instead of an actual science site. Mind you, it wasn’t all used explicitly to disprove the Bible like the scientific conspiracy some believers imagine. Scientists were investigating all sorts of questions; the answers just happened to lie between tens of thousands of years and billions of years in the past.
There are almost 20 independent methods of radiometric dating, each based on the decay of a different parent isotope into a daughter isotope. Each has its own starting point, a known past event when the substance to be dated theoretically contained known proportions of the parent and daughter (which could be all of one and none of the other). This is non-negotiable because a method is useless without a reliable starting point, as you would agree. The implication, then, is that the knowledge of serviceable pre-conditions is a major reason why each of the ~20 methods was developed in the first place, out of the multitude of unstable isotopes in the heavier half of the periodic table. It’ll always be there, if you pick a method and look it up.
If a method’s starting point is the least bit ambiguous, say, vulnerable to contamination by outside sources of the daughter isotope (like your meteorite that’s already full of lead), one or more other independent methods are used in conjunction, taking advantage of other elements in the object. The fact that unrelated methods consistently return almost precisely the same result is a major reason for confidence in the principle as a whole, since their reasons for potentially failing are so different.
As an example we’ll look at carbon dating animals in more detail.
As you wrote, Carbon-14 is formed when radiation strikes nitrogen in the air, which means it happens all the time above ground. It’s absorbed by plants in the carbon dioxide they breathe, and then eaten by animals. The starting point is therefore when the animal dies and stops accumulating it. Afterwards the carbon-14 decays back to nitrogen-14, which normally dissipates as gas but is trapped with the body if the specimen is buried. Dating it is then a matter of comparing the amount of N14 to the remaining C14. This works for about 50,000 years post-mortem. Afterwards the amount of remaining initial C14 is so low it cannot be distinguished from the small amount of C14 produced in a different way: alpha or gamma radiation from other radioactive materials in the earth (with millions of years more longevity) can re-irradiate atoms of the N14 and convert it to C14 a second time. This effect is the reason why C14 would have been detected in dinosaur fossils, which are WAY too old to retain their own C14. Hence, other elements with longer half-lives are used to date them instead.
On to your other point. The observation that led to your claim about the Earth’s magnetic field was merely that the dipole field has apparently decreased since 1835.
– That it is a consistent exponential decrease is only an assertion, so raising it exponentially as you go back is unsupportable. The line of best fit between only two data points cannot be assumed to be a smooth curve.
– That it has consistently decreased at ANY rate contradicts other evidence collected from the magnetisation of iron particles in ancient clay pottery (mentioned here), which indicate very clearly what the magnetic field was like earlier on. From just other two data points in history we know it was 45% stronger 3,000 years ago and 20% weaker 6,500 years ago (so in this case, the line of best fit is a wiggle).
– The initial observation only took the dipole field into account. Geologist Brent Dalrymple wrote that increases in the nondipole field, discovered from the very same measurements, resulted in no significant change in the overall strength of the field at all over this particular interval.
– As stated, most or all radiometric dating methods rely on the proportion of the daughter isotope to the parent. The magnetic field affects the generation of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, but this would have no effect on the proportion of C14 to N14 in an already-buried corpse if the N14 is all coming from the C14.
– Does the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field so directly affect the production of every radio-isotope used in every form of radiometric dating? I don’t know, but you’re the one claiming they don’t work, so have you checked?
It’s worth pointing out that carbon dating is the best-known dating method but it’s the least of a young-earth creationist’s worries, as it only goes up to 50,000 years. That’s only one order of magnitude off the desired scale, as opposed to the six orders of magnitude of the actual discrepancy between the Biblical timeline and the evident reality of geological time.
Question from Gene:
How did reality come to be structured such that there are fundamental laws of nature and a hierarchy of intelligence in the natural world?
Answer by SmartLX:
The “hierarchy of intelligence” is the easy part. Sentient life forms on this planet have diversified and subsequently evolved in different directions, and some animals’ brains grew more than others, so different animals have wildly different levels of intelligence. Individuals are also subject to different genes and environmental factors, so even within one species there are relative geniuses and relative idiots. It’s exactly what we would expect in the circumstances. If all animals with intelligence had exactly the same amount of it, now that would be a remarkable thing.
As for the apparently universal consistency of the laws of nature, I don’t know why they’re there, though of course if they weren’t so consistent then I wouldn’t have a functioning brain to wonder about it.
It might simply be that way as a result of the physical properties of all matter and energy. The constants might have varied significantly in some ancient epoch, and stabilised around the time of the Big Bang (if that phrase even makes sense given the nature of time) so that we’re now enjoying the benefits of a stable universe. There could be many universes, some with fixed constants and some without. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the reason.
Let’s say, though I won’t assume at this point, that you believe a god structured the laws of nature the way they are. If I don’t know how it happened and admit as much, is that a good reason for me to adopt your position? No, because it’s merely an assertion. There’s no substantive evidence for the existence of a god, let alone its influence on the form of the universe. I have no desire to grasp at any answer presented to me if there’s nothing to support the idea that the answer is right.
We can take this a little further. Let’s say that we did both believe that there’s an almighty god, but didn’t adhere to the specific doctrine of any one religion. Could we then say confidently that He structured the universe? The answer is still no, because there’s still no evidence that it happened. Unless we can establish that uniformity can ONLY be deliberately structured, which we can’t, our god might only have happened across our universe and adopted it like one adopts a puppy.
Finally, if we both adhered to the doctrine of a religion that stated that God structured the universe, we would both accept that idea. We would not, however, have arrived at this particular position through logic, other than through the logical fallacy of accepting an argument from authority.
So, if even taking the existence of a god as a given doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that a god structured the universe, we certainly can’t arrive at that conclusion when the existence of a god is in question. As for using the idea to argue for the existence of the god, forget it.
I have another question. I came a across something odd during a conversation with a believer and I could not find any rational explanation. Maybe you can help and I would be very thankful for that. Here is the question:
Shamans in the areas where it is extreme cold like where Eskimos live have a ritual to become a Shaman where the Shaman must put on himself a very wet clothing and then stay in the cold using only his body temperature to make the wet clothing dry again and if the person succeed he will become a Shaman. Mircea Eliade wrote about this in one of his books the believer told me and I had a look on it. The books name is Dreams and the Sacred(Sorry It my own translation because its in Slovak language). Eliade in the book claims that they can achieve this only using meditation and the power of their own mind.
Its the same way like this guy does it who claims the same thing:
Hof like the Shamans claims that his ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures as being able to “turn his own thermostat up” by using his mind.
If you could answer my question and give me some rational explanation I would be very grateful. Thanks very much for reading this and for the answer.
Also I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Answer by SmartLX:
Merry Christmas to you too. To those who don’t think atheists should say “Christmas”, consider that hardly anyone who uses the names “Tuesday”, “Wednesday”, “Thursday”, “Friday” and “Saturday” believes in the Norse gods Tiw (Týr), Wodan (Odin) and Thor, the Norse goddess Frigg (Frigga) or the Roman god Saturn. I don’t see the harm in letting such names settle into the lexicon, especially since their original meaning (e.g. “Thor’s Day” or “Christ’s Mass”) soon becomes irrelevant.
Anyway, it does appear that with training, at least some people can measurably influence their body temperature using only their minds. Experiments so far have produced encouraging, if not fully conclusive, results. This is not an indication that anything supernatural is going on.
Our body temperature is fixed around a certain level, but it changes on a small scale all the time. It goes up when we eat, when we do physical activity and when we’re sexually aroused or otherwise riled up (hence the expression “hot under the collar”). It’s closely related to the rate of blood flow and metabolism.
Normally these changes are involuntary, but if other involuntary actions like breathing and blinking can also be controlled voluntarily, why not this kind of thing as well? Brain scans of Buddhist monks who can do the cloth-drying thing show multiple physiological changes while they’re in the correct meditative state, which results in increased blood flow and apparently greater body heat.
The supernatural claim related to all this is that the mind is exerting an impossible, supernatural influence on the rest of the body, but the brain is in a perfect position to exert a natural influence to achieve the same results. Influencing the operation of the body is what the brain does all day long, after all. If a monk were able to produce the same physical effects on someone else without inducing the same mental state in the subject, that might be a phenomenon that defied natural explanation, but what we’ve seen so far appears to be a natural mechanism. Pretty awesome, when you think about it, but still within the bounds of naturalism despite what some practitioners believe.