How strange to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Catholic Evolutionary Ecologist

Before I begin, a few basics:
1. I am a practicing Catholic
2. I am studying for a PhD in Ecology and Evolution
3. This post reflects only my own personal opinions and ideas

Due to these two facts, I have been confronted at least once (and this one time I am thinking of was a very serious and prolonged encounter) about how I can reconcile being Catholic, i.e. believing in intelligent design, and believing in evolution. When this encounter happened, I didn't know how to respond because it never occurred to me that these ideas must conflict and that this should elicit a prolonged discussion.

There are innumerable ideas regarding the relationship between intelligent design and the origin of life on Earth. I would like to write a detailed report on this topic, but I don't have time for that. Instead, I would like to report my opinion.

My Feelings on the Interaction between the Ideas of Intelligent Design and Evolution
The popularized idea of intelligent design is that one day there were no biological organisms, and then the next day* God created them all. The popularized idea of evolution is that one day* there was no Earth and the next day BANG!, there it was, and billions of years later, atoms eventually arranged themselves in multicellular organisms.

Image from

Image from

The problem with these popular ideas is that they appear to be mutually exclusive. This is a similar problem to one in the medieval times when astronomy was being well-studied in Catholic institutions in order to learn more about God and Heaven. People were seeking theological knowledge through science to support their belief that Earth was the center of the universe. However, in this process they found evidence that Earth revolved around the Sun. Since this was contrary to the theology at the time, and the idea was largely rejected.

Hundreds of years later, this fact is common knowledge and not a single well-respected theologian contests it. Somehow, despite biblical verses that suggest otherwise, Christians accepted an alternate explanation of the universe. In fact, Pope John Paul II apologized for the lifetime house arrest imposed on Galileo in 1655 for disseminating his at the time outrageous astronomical research.

Is it because the astronomical facts were logical and clear, and simply couldn't be denied? Is it because this fact did not fundamentally challenge Christian beliefs, but more of a traditional way of thinking?

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This story parallels that of the origin of evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin, an aspiring pastor, was interested in God's creation and set off on a boat to study it scientifically. This pursuit led him to observe changes in the beaks of birds over time, which led to his theory of natural selection. (Lucky for Darwin, he wasn't condemned to house arrest as a result of his research.) I don't believe he went so far as to suggest that all life on Earth began this way from a single cell, and as my Evolutionary Ecology professor put it in class today, his work On the Origin of Species perhaps would have better been named On the Origin of Local Adaptation because local adaptation is what Darwin was witnessing, not complete speciation. However, as more ecologists and geneticists studied how organisms change, such a theory of the origin of life became inevitable.

Currently, at least in the United States, this theory is contested by those that believe literally in the Biblical creation story. Does resistance to this evolutionary idea reflect a challenge to a fundamental Christian truth or a traditional way of thinking? If this resistance prevents further understanding about God's creation, is it worth it?

Just as modern astronomy can coexist with the Christian belief system, so can modern ecology and evolution. Christianity can continue to be a wonderful and enriching way of living even if humans evolved from primates. (For the record, modern Catholicism, which is quite liberal if you ask me, does not deny that humans evolved from primates.) I think both the popularized ideas of intelligent design and modern ecology can be taken too literally. Intelligent design doesn't have to exclude the process of evolution, and evolution doesn't have to be so random; I would argue that intelligent design has to include evolution, and evolution can't be totally random.

Perhaps in a hundred years or so, no well-respected theologian will deny the evolution of life from a single cell. Or perhaps scientists will find evidence for another theory of the origin of life. Either way, there is no reason why our observations about the world should contradict religious beliefs or vice versa.

If you ask me, the apparent conflict between Christianity and Evolution is a an excellent way to miss a lot of really important things in life.

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*The word "day" is not used to imply a 24-hour period, since before Earth and the Sun were created there were no 24-hour days as we now know them. It is used as an nondescript measure of time.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Sound of Doom

In Douglas Adam's book Life, the Universe, and Everything, part of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (HGG) series, the sound of one hundred thousand people saying "wop" is a very important and ominous onomatopoeia*:

What happened next they could not ignore. With a noise like a hundred thousand people saying "wop", a steely white spaceship suddenly seemed to create itself out of nothing in the air directly above the cricket pitch and hung there with infinite menace and a slight hum.

Such is the sound of the landing of the warship of a race of people who want to destroy the entire universe. This onomatopoeia is brilliant, because it is a sound we can imagine and conceive of recreating, yet no one has heard it.

I am dying to know how it sounds. 

How much like the word "wop" would it actually sound? Would it be so loud that I would need to cover my ears? Would it startle me? Does it sound like anything I have ever heard before? Can I imagine more than 20 people saying this word? Can I get 20 of my friends to say the word for me simultaneously? Can my ears detect the difference between 100 and 100,000 people saying "wop" at the same time? These questions buzz through my head day after day and keep me up at night.

Fortunately, I am not the only one. Other readers of HGG are also plagued by the same unknowing, and we need your help (and the help of 99,998 others (I already contributed))! The site below is a "wop" project.

With your voice, we will someday hear the sound of 100,000 people saying "wop," and cure our insomnia. All you need to do is use your computer's sound recording software or download Audacity and record yourself casually saying "wop" with a few seconds before and after you say it (no need to shout it). Then email it to, and, as an added bonus, CC me in the email so I can hear your "wop!" That would make me giggle.

Just imagine what a great ringtone it will make!

Here's another "wop" project on a website dedicated to HGG craziness. However, I was unable to upload my "wop" file to this site, so I suggest submitting to the first site I mentioned.

Zaphod stopped stomping. He had been stomping around the Heart of Gold for days, and so far no door had said 'wop' to him. He was fairly certain that no door had said "wop" to him now. It was not the sort of thing doors said. Too concise. Furthermore, there were not enough doors. It sounded as if a hundred thousand people had said "wop," which puzzled him because he was the only person on the ship.

It was dark. Most of the ship's non-essential systems were closed down. It was drifting in a remote area of the Galaxy, deep in the inky blackness of space. So which particular hundred thousand people would turn up at this point and say a totally unexpected "wop?"

He listened but could hear nothing.
All there had been was the "wop."
It seemed an awfully long way to bring an awfully large number of people just to say one word.

There was a sad and terrible pause at this point in the conversation during which a hundred thousand people seemed unexpectedly to say "wop" and a team of white robots descended from the sky like dandelion seeds drifting on the wind in tight military formation. For a sudden violent moment they were all there, in the swamp, wrenching Marvin's false leg off, and then they were gone again in their ship, which said "foop."

"A Rory. It's just a small silver thing set on a large black base. What did you say?"
"I didn't say anything. I was just about to ask what the silver ...'"
"Oh, I thought you said 'wop'. "
"Said what?"

Hear the sound of 11 people saying "wop" (downloads an mp3).

*"Wop" is not intended as a racial slur, and in some American versions of this English book, it is spelled "whop."