Saturday, April 15, 2006

Genesis of Fishapods

Two discoveries of new links in the evolution of life have been announced recently. One is a fish whose fins have become somewhat more like the feet of most land animals. The other is a 4.2 million year old hominid that falls in between Ardipithecus and Australopithecus.

News coverage of both finds has unfortunately come with headlines like "Darwin would have loved it," and commentary on the "long-running debate with creationists." No doubt Darwin would have loved it. So what? The truth is the truth, whether Darwin would have loved it or not. Darwin was right about some things, wrong about others. Aren't we all?

If the "fishapod" has been accurately identified, and accurately dated, it represents a key link between animal life in the oceans and animal life that walks on land. It does not have legs, or feet. Where other fish have fins, it has something like a wrist and five digits encased in fin-like webbing. These are the beginnings of a "tetrapod hand" – the hand or paw that every four-legged land reptile or mammal walks on. The interlocking rib cage suggests that it had lungs. It was the kind of fish that could do well in warm, shallow, marshy waters. Unlike fish, it had a flexible neck, and eyes on the top of its head.

Notably, the discovery of this aquatic non-fish has demonstrated how biological theories change with new evidence. That silly "Darwin fish" that grew legs and walked onto the land is out. Seriously, everyone who thought it was good fun to put one on your car, just to get Christians riled up, can take it off now. That didn't happen. By the time anything walked on land, it wasn't a fish. It took a few million years of fishapods living in shallow seas before some oddball descendant actually had legs to walk on land with.

When it comes to science, nothing we think we know remains firmly entrenched. This fishapod has indeed filled in one of the missing transitional links in the chain of living organisms. And it has vindicated the plain language of Genesis, for those who have eyes to see, and a mind to understand what we read.

Genesis? Yes, take another look at Genesis 1: 20-21. First God said "Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life." Then it says "God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly." That word "great whales" is something of a mystery. The King James translation into English says "great whales." Some translations say sea serpents. Orthodox Jewish understanding is that it was a "great fish" of a type unknown at the present day. Maybe it was a fishapod.

The key point is, first God called upon the waters to bring forth life, then God "made" everything the waters brought forth.Whatever is turning up in the fossil record is simply giving us some details on the results. The "long-running debate" is a lot of hot air. Evolution is a hypothesis that can be tested. God is not. There is no experiment ever devised that can test for the presence or absence of God. The real question on the subject of divine creation is: How did Moses get such a sophisticated overview, more than 3000 years before a University of Chicago paleontologist dug the fishapod fossil out of a rock formation on Ellesmere Island?

By the way, don't forget that while this animal with five primitive digits did swim around in the primeval swamps some 375 million years ago, there were still plenty of fish in the oceans, lakes and rivers. There still are. The fish didn't all evolve into something else, some fish took off in a new direction. We're still not sure how. Genesis says "God made" the life that "the waters brought forth." When something new appears, it has a tendency to "be fruitful and multiply."

The new hominid found in Africa isn't even close to human. The difference in the timelines for humanity of "instant creationists" compared to the timelines of "evolutionary creationists" is only the difference between 6000 years or so and 200,000 years, or maybe as little as 50,000 years. Out of a possible 4 billion years, that is next to nothing.

Tne new find does close a sequence of 12 hominids over a period of 6 million years, through three phases of hominid development. Note that "hominid" does not mean the same thing as "human." Nor is it accurate to say, as many news reports do, that "Ardipithecus evolved into Australopithecus." Whatever may have happened, most Ardipithecus went right on having Ardipithecus babies, until all the Ardipithecus died out. Maybe a few of the Ardipithecus had oddball children who were the ancestors of the newly discovered fossil. Maybe a few of their descendants had oddball children who were the ancestors of Australopithecus.

All the hominids except for homo sapiens sapiens, aka Adam, are long since extinct. We might have some descent from a few of them. Our genes suggest a "genetic bottleneck" only 50,000 years ago. That means a very small number of individuals was isolated from all others of their kind, and became something new and different. That is how "evolution" generally works. Either a very few individuals are physically isolated, or almost all life is destroyed in a great catastrophe. The whole process follows a very Biblical pattern.

The last of the other hominids were no more than very distant cousins to our ten-thousand-greats-grandparents. It was only 50,000 years ago that actual humans appeared on the earth, with powers of speech, with minds to create art, with ability to develop new technologies... It seems that something new and different was breathed into their nostrils. But it is interesting that all the hominids developed in one small area of Africa. Somewhere east of Eden perhaps?

The physcial evidence is real, and it means what it says. Whatever God has been doing, it took a lot more time, as we experience time, than our pious ancestors could conceive of. Well, we can't expect humans to think on the grand scale of an omnipotent God. Our minds can only handle as much as we can handle. Let the facts speak for themselves. And let Genesis tell us what it all means.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Common Sense in South Dakota

The People Challenge the Politicians on Abortion

It appears that many South Dakota citizens disagree with the legislature's decision to impose criminal penalties for nearly all abortions in the state. Some are going to petition for a popular referendum to repeal the law. A most interesting approach. State Representative Elaine Roberts observed "The vast majority of South Dakotans are somewhere in the middle. They have mixed feelings about this issue and I personally don't believe that their views are represented in HB-1215."

The act of the South Dakota legislature is of course, null and void from its inception. Every legislator who voted for it knows that. A very routine judgement from a federal district court would suffice to confirm the obvious. The 7-2 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in Roe v. Wade remains the supreme law of the land. That ruling is binding on every federal court of appeal, and every federal district court judge, no matter what their personal sentiments. It is also binding on the legislature and laws, and the courts, of the state of South Dakota. The new state law is, accordingly, utterly unenforceable.

But a referendum will accomplish something that no dry court ruling could do. Perhaps it is true that a majority of people in the state are neither "pro-abortion," nor supportive of the "pro-life" lobbyists – who want to restore draconian criminal penalties. In that case, the referendum will make this a battle of "the people vs. the lobbyists and politicians" rather than "activist judges vs. the popular will."

It is possible, even probable, that the legislators who passed this unenforceable law HOPE that it will make its way to the Supreme Court, where a new majority may overturn Roe. That is rather unlikely, but nothing will drown this remote possibility so well as a vote of the people to reject the new law. The legislature and governor of the State of South Dakota would then have nothing to appeal.

In the event of a legal challenge, judgment from a federal district court would be a foregone conclusion. A federal appeals court might well decline to even consider an appeal from the district court, since current constitutional law is so obvious and well defined. There is no controversy. There really is nothing to consider on appeal. That would serve as an extremely poor basis for the Supreme Court to take a direct appeal. Unless four or five justices are firmly committed to overturning the court's existing precedent, there would be no reason to grant a writ of certiorari.

Every measure of public opinion indicates that a majority of Americans take a sound, sensible, common-sense, conservative position on this whole endless controversy. The heavy hand of government, of criminal penalties and public prosecution, has no role in the intimate decisions of a pregnant woman during the first trimester. The state has only a very limited place in the second trimester. Abortion is not a desirable course of action, and few of us would recommend it unless there is a good reason. We differ on what might constitute a good reason. Many believe it to be a sin under any circumstances. But a firm majority of us would ultimately let each pregnant woman make her own decision.

Public opinion is not, of course, the measure of constitutional law. As Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out, in his eloquent concurring opinion in Apprendi v. New Jersey, the constitution means what it says, not what we think it ought to mean. Justice Scalia has also noted, correctly, that supreme court justices are appointed for life, precisely so they can follow the law, rather than bending to whatever happens to be the popular will at the moment. A constitutional limit on the powers of government does not appear when a popular majority approves, then disappear when a popular majority shifts the other way.

It may be that the constitution does not protect individual privacy from government intrusion. Most Americans have come to passionately expect that it does protect our personal lives from state interference, in many different ways. Justice Scalia has been firm in holding that the 4th amendment secures the home against government intrusion. Other justices, notably Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis Brandeis, have argued for an expansive right to be left alone. As long as such a right exists, legislators or popular majorities, in South Dakota or anywhere else, are powerless to intervene in the private decisions of individual citizens.

If the Supreme Court finds that there is no such constitutional protection after all, then states would be free to go anywhere they choose. The legislature of South Dakota would be free to adopt criminal penalties for abortion, and to have them enforced. The people of South Dakota would be free to overturn the legislature by referendum. There is a place for both constitutional protection and the popular will in our system of government. Right now it is an open question, who truly speaks for the people of South Dakota?

Unfortunately, a majority of the South Dakota legislature views abortion through the dark glass of a "war" that has to be "won." So, on a national level, do NARAL and Planned Parenthood. These two fanatical viewpoints, each more concerned with "winning the war" than with allowing women to make healthy choices, have fed on each other for at least 20 years. Both fail to recognize that our culture is moving toward greater reverence for life precisely because of Roe v. Wade.

It would be a very good thing if Americans who stand for the right to life of every unborn child would put all their money where their mouth is. Instead of endless and futile demand for criminal penalties, think what they could accomplish by reaching out to pregnant women who are not sure they can handle bearing and raising a child! Let every person who believes abortion is always wrong offer to take complete responsibility for any fetus brought to term by a mother who does not want, or feel able, to keep and raise the child.

Also, could the "pro choice" advocates please lower their profile a little? Roe v. Wade rested on the respecting the intimate private decisions of individual women and families, consulting their own choice of physician, not on a "right to abortion." Justice Harry Blackmun's private papers reveal that he specifically rejected the concept that there is a constitutional right to abortion. Highly publicized clinics dedicated to providing abortions offer an obvious lightning rod. Could we please let this whole issue fade back into a private decision, and respect whatever decision an individual woman may choose to make?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Cartoons of the Prophet

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

In the winter of 1874, some young Lakota boys living in a camp around Ft. Robinson, Nebraska, thought it was great fun to climb a flagpole, chop the tip off, incidentally bringing the United States flag flying from it down into the dust. Trigger happy soldiers were about to gun down every Lakota in sight, male or female, child or adult. Chief Red Cloud, who had fought the U.S. army to a standstill in 1868, then accepted reservation life while Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were still fighting to remain free, addressed the soldiers eloquently. He said that the boys must of course be punished, but grown men do not gun down entire communities over the pranks of children. He asked the soldiers if they had ever done foolish things when they were boys.

The Danish publisher who commissioned cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed was not a boy, nor were the cartoonists who responded. The assignment, and the cartoons themselves, are indeed childish. There is no legal authority to punish them, nor should there be any. The entire episode evidences a failure to communicate.

Many of those protesting the cartoons live in nations where publications are closely regulated by the government. In some nations, there may be only one television network, and that one is an organ of the state. Newspapers are subject by law to prior censorship, or to criminal penalties for printing material the government deems inappropriate. (The popularity of Al-Jazeera satellite broadcasts is not so much that they attack the west, as that they are independent of government control in the Middle East.) In most of these nations, blasphemy, at least against the dominant religion, is a well-know criminal offense. Generally, violent protests have occured in nations where Islam is the dominant religion.

That should not be such a foreign concept to Europeans, or even to Americans. Every nation in Europe at one time had a tightly controlled press, and most British colonies in North America had one also. Most European nations had, and still have, an established church. It is a pale shadow of its former self, but tax money is still paid to support the mostly empty churches of Europe's state-favored religious sects.

It is no more than a century since most European nations had laws punishing blasphemy against some or all Christian doctrines. (Cartoons lampooning the Pope were acceptable in Protestant nations, but not in Catholic nations). Most of the original 13 colonies also imposed criminal penalties for at least some forms of blasphemy. The Roman Catholic Church sometimes seems intent on restoring that kind of influence over the secular law if it possibly can. But John Calvin and Martin Luther were equally guilty in their own times. So was Cotton Mather.

Why are these cartoons deemed to be blasphemous by Muslims?

Has anyone noticed recently that the Ten Commandments (which are part of the Qu'ran as well as the Torah and the Bible) prohibit making "any graven image of anything that is in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth"? Islam takes that very, very literally. Muslim art features beautiful and intricate abstract designs, because it simply does not allow for any images at all.

Most Christians understand this prohibition in light of the following phrase "you shall not bow down to them or serve them." As long as we do not worship the graven image, we don't see a problem with realistic painting and sculpture. But it is not a foreign concept to Christians that a passage from Scripture "means what it says and it says what it means." Some Christians refuse to pledge allegiance to a flag, because we will not bow down to a graven image.

Islam particularly prohibits any image of the Prophet, unlike Christianity, which freely produces a variety of images portraying Jesus. Usually these images have nothing in common with what the human body of Jesus actually looked like when he walked on earth. Most paintings of Jesus (there are no photographs) simply try to make the man culturally relevant to whatever population is currently being evangelized. That is how bronze-skinned missionaries from the Mediterranean came to portray Jesus with pink skin and blonde hair, to the pale barbarians of northern Europe.

We all know the song "I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, riding on the dashboard of my car..." There are no Plastic Prophets for the faithful of Islam. Muslims simply don't allow the making of any image at all. It is considered a special mark of disrespect to depict God's final prophet, who was taken up by God directly to heaven, somewhat like Enoch in Genesis 5:24. But originally, the prohibition recognized that Mohammed is not God, that no graven image is to be made of him.

So devout followers of Islam, living in nations with a tightly controlled press, where blasphemy is a criminal offense, may be making some natural assumptions about the meaning of these contemptible cartoons. It would be natural to assume that such cartoons had to be approved by the Danish government in order to be printed. It would be natural to assume that the Danish government is maliciously refraining from prosecution of this blasphemy. It would be natural to take that as a deliberate insult to Islam.

The cartoons are an insult to Islam. But insulting a religion (any religion) is not a crime in the United States, nor at this time in Denmark. It is not a crime any more in most of Europe. Saddam Hussein could decree any law he wanted, any time he wanted, including an ex post facto, law making a crime of something already done. The president of Denmark has no such power. Nor is it lawful to assassinate the author of such blasphemies, merely because someone's beliefs have been insulted.

Blasphemy against Christians is also legal here

Christian have to put up with this all the time in the United States. A good example is Terrence McNally's blasphemous play, Corpus Christi, which depicts Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles as gay men engaged in group sex. There was a lawsuit about that in federal court a few years ago. Linnemeir v. Board of Trustees of Purdue University The result: the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the play "is indeed blasphemous," but there is no legal basis to prohibit a theater major producing it, even at a state-funded university. Christians have a right to denounce the play, to picket the play, to boycott the play, and encourage others to do so. But there is no legal basis to suppress the play, nor to punish the author, producer, or actors who participate in presenting it.

That is difficult for many Muslims, in nations with a controlled press, to understand. If the government does not authorize the cartoons, if the government lacks authority to suppress the cartoons, then the government is not responsible for the content of the cartoons. Nor are the individual or corporate citizens of the nation in which the cartoons are published. Only the individuals who wrote them, and choose to publish them, are responsible for the content.

In some nations, blasphemy may be subject to a penalty of death, lawfully adopted and published in the legal codes. Danish cartoonists should be aware of these laws before travelling to such nations. Denmark has no such laws, nor does the United States. It is unacceptable that anyone should take the law into their own hands in a nation where no such legal penalty exists. But before we get too high up on our liberal horses, we should again remember our own history. There was no law against publishing abolitionist newspapers in Illinois before the Civil War either. That did not stop a pro-slavery mob from burning down the print-shop of Elijah Lovejoy, dumping his press in the river, and, when he attempted to defend his property, shooting him dead.

In parts of the world where Islam is the dominant faith, it is well known that after the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001, mobs in the United States attempted to deface or destroy a few mosques. (There were also Christian and Jewish neighbors who came to the defense of such mosques – just as Muslim neighbors volunteered to defend Christian churches in Indonesia during the 2005 Christmas season). The members of at least some of those American mosques were fifth-generation Americans, whose ancestors came to these shores before the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. There was also one incident where some thugs who mistook a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona for a Muslim, murdered him as an act of "revenge" for the World Trade Center.

Essential principles to work our way out of this mess:
  1. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are non-negotiable. Al-Jazeera would no doubt be the first to agree.
  2. Juvenile cretins, who take pleasure in casual blasphemies to get a rise out of believers, are not worthy of support or respect, albeit they have the legal right to make public idiots of themselves.
  3. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, and to some extent for the actions of organizations to which they freely commit themselves and which they freely consent to or support. There can be no guilt by association of all Americans for the act of one or 100 Americans, all Muslims for the act of one or 100 Muslims, all Danes for the act of one or 100 Danes.
  4. None of us can claim a history of perfectly clean hands, but it is worth fighting to hold onto the hard-won progress we have made.
  5. Those who seek God through the path of Islam would do well to break the habit of relying on the state to enforce religious laws, a habit that most Christians reluctantly abandoned in the last 200 years or so.
  6. Christians trying to restore the habit of relying on the state to enforce religious laws should be careful what they wish for.
  7. and God (Yaweh, Adonai, al-Lah – The God) help us every one.