Death, Taxes and Stew

William Goldman, in his masterpiece, ‘The Princess Bride’, writes, and I paraphrase.

‘There are two certainties in this world; death and taxes. Wait, I forget a third! Death, taxes and stew. When ancient man clambered up out of the primordial ooze, he was offered a bowl of stew. And so it has been ever since.’

I have been avidly following the discussions on these pages, and contributing to the general rumpus room brawl that passes for debate.

‘You suck!’

‘Yeah? You suck even worse!’

‘Huh! You suck like your mother!

And so on. Towering intellects pitting their wits against each other, banging their heads against a solid concrete wall in the hope of breaking through. Is it wasted? I think not. For as immature as a lot of it is, it is dialogue, and whether the dialogue centres around religion, politics, sport, racism or silly little rhymes, it remains dialogue. Of a sort.

So…my two cents for today.

Evolution, one of the subjects of frequent debate on this forum, is regarded as any change across successive generations in the inherited characteristics of biological populations, and gives rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.

It is believed that life on Earth originated and then evolved from a universal common ancestor about three and a half billion years ago. Repeated speciation and divergence of life is inferred from shared sets of biochemical and morphological traits, which are shared by DNA sequences.

These homologous traits and sequences are more likely to be similar among species that share a more recent common ancestor, which can then be used to reconstruct evolutionary history, using existing species as well as the fossil record. Existing patterns of biodiversity are believed to have been shaped by both speciation and extinction.

Charles Darwin, so often demonised on these pages, was the first to put forth a scientific argument, although he was not the first to postulate it. Andrew Russell Wallace was the first proponent of evolution, but of course, the ‘Voyage of the Beagle’ and ‘On the Origin of the Species’ put paid to that. Not that this was plagiarism of any sort!  That has never been suggested even by his enemies.

Charles Darwin was the first to propose a theory of Natural Selection. Evolution by Natural Selection is a process inferred by three facts regarding populations.

1.       More offspring are produced than can possibly survive

2.       Traits vary amongst individuals, leading to differential rates of survival and reproduction

3.       Trait differences are heritable

Therefore, when the members of a population die they are replaced by the progeny of parents better adapted to survive in the environment where the natural selection first occurred. This process creates and preserves traits seemingly fitted for the functional roles they perform. Natural selection is the only known cause of adaptation, but not the only known cause of evolution. Mutation and genetic drift are also cited as cause for evolution.

In the early twentieth century, genetics was integrated with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection via the discipline of population genetics. The importance of natural selection as a cause of evolution was then incorporated into other branches of biology.

Previously held notions of evolution, such as orthogenesis and progress became obsolete. Scientists continue to study various aspects of evolution by forming and testing hypotheses, constructing scientific theories using observational data, and performing both field and laboratory experiments

Biologists agree that descent with modifications is one of the most reliably established facts in science. Discoveries in evolutionary biology have made significant impact on many fields outside biology, such as anthropology and psychology.

So, let’s have a look at the evidence we have.

Homology: Many animals have similar bone structures, creating the appearance of relationship. Embryology: Embryos of different vertebrates look alike in their early stages, giving the appearance of relationship.

Natural Selection: Darwin's proposed mechanism for evolutionary change is observed in nature.

The Fossil Record: Purported "missing links" between distinct kinds of animals which can be extrapolated as transitions between kinds. For example, Archaeopteryx is thought to be a transition between reptiles and birds.

The Stanley Miller Experiment: The Stanley Miller "Spark and Soup" experiment produced amino acids building blocks. This was achieved by creating conditions similar to those that existed in the primordial world. Is this evidence for the spontaneous generation of life from inorganic matter "naturally by random chance" created in the laboratory?

Genetic Mutations: Genetic mutations have been shown to cause variation within species.

Vestigial Organs: Body parts thought to be useless remnants of past evolutionary development.

Human and Chimpanzee DNA: The difference between human and chimpanzee DNA is a mere 2%. This is regarded as evidence of a shared ancestor.

So let’s have a look at the earliest example of Man. Lucy made her appearance on the African plains about 3 000 000 years ago, and was definitely more ape than human, according to Mary Leakey, Donald Johanson and Yves Coppens.

Her official title is Australopithecus Afarensis, and she was discovered in 1974 at Hadar, in the Awash valley in Ethiopia. Several hundred pieces of bone were found, making up about 40% of a total skeleton. From this evidence it was assumed she was bi-pedal in nature, and had descended from her natural habitat, the trees, to dwell on the African plains.

Java Man, or Homo Erectus Erectus, was discovered on the Solo River in East Java by Eugene Dubois.

Dubois’ find was a skullcap, a femur and a few teeth, about fifteen metres apart. Later finds were more complete, although nothing like as complete as Lucy. This was dated at about 1 800 000 years old and, until the discovery of Lucy, though to be the oldest example of early man.

In excavations taking place between 1923 and 1927, a number of fossil fragments were unearthed at Zhoukoudian, near Beijing. Between 1929 and 1937, 15 partial craniums were found, 11 lower jaws, some skeletal bones and large numbers of stone tools were discovered in the lower cave at locality 1 of the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian. Their age is estimated to be between 300 000 and 500 000 years old.

This was Peking Man or Homo Erectus Pekinensi.

Now some people, Carl Sagan amongst them, believed that the Universe itself was evolving, as they believed in a Steady State Universe, rather than the Big Bang.

Now I’m going to throw a cat amongst the pigeons, and this time the cat does not belong to Ernst Schrodinger.

Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance: In 1865, Gregor Johann Mendel published his then controversial Theory of Inheritance. This theoretical framework was at first ignored and then lost, until its rediscovery in 1900 by Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak. When Mendel’s Theories were integrated with Hunt’s chromosome theory of inheritance in 1915, they became the core of classical genetics.

Without going into too much detail, Mendel’s laws clearly show that one species cannot spring from another, and this has been accepted as fact in genetics. There can be much diversity within species, for instance an Irish Wolfhound and a Chihuahua share a common ancestor, but in no way resemble each other.

Mendel’s Laws are applied to every field of genetics and the results have been astounding, right up to and including the Human Genome Project. As Charles Darwin himself said, and which seems to have been ignored, ‘…the distinctions of specific forms and their not being blended together by innumerable transitional links, is a very obvious difficulty…’

Andrew Russell Wallace wrote, ‘But on the general relation of Mendelism to evolution I have come to a very definite conclusion. This is, that it has no relation whatever to the evolution of species or higher groups, but is really antagonistic toward evolution! The essential basis of evolution, involving as it does the most minute and all-pervading adaptation to the whole environment, is the ever-present plasticity, as a condition of survival and adaptation. But the essence of Mendelian characters is their rigidity. They are transmitted without variation, and therefore, except by the rarest of accidents, can never become adapted to varying conditions.’

Yet Mendel’s Laws remain the basis of classical genetics. Hmmm!

We now come to the conundrum of the eye. How was it possible for the eye to evolve? Is it at all possible that it could have? Richard Dawkins believes he has the solution. Let’s see what he has to say.

In brief, Richard Dawkins explains how the very first eye was no more than a dot at the front of a single-celled organism, called a flat-eye, which only responded to the absence or presence of light. He uses a strip of paper coated in a substance that glows under ultraviolet light as a representation of this earliest stage of eyeball development, and demonstrates that under a light source at any angle, the surface glows equally, thus making it rather useless in determining anything such as direction and orientation.

Dawkins then shows what happens if the paper is cupped slightly: different lighting angles allow for one side of the strip to be exposed to more light than the other, which in organisms having undergone a similar evolutionary step, would grant them a massive advantage in allowing them to determine which direction a potential predator’s shadow is coming from.

Dawkins then shows what happens if the curve is completed to form a pinhole camera with light-sensitive (photosensitive) cells on all sides. With this new development, the organism can now form an extremely rudimentary and very blurry picture of whatever is directly in front of them.

Dawkins then uses a small bag of water in front of an actual pinhole camera to demonstrate what happens if one uses a rudimentary lens: the image becomes much clearer. This bag of water would take the form of jelly inside organisms’ eyeballs, which over time and with more mutations, would gradually harden and reshape itself to form more of an actual lens, providing a clearer, crisper and wider picture of the creature’s surroundings.

Finally, he explains that scientists estimate that it only took about 400,000 generations to go from the first rudimentary flat-eye to a fully developed eyeball, which corresponds to roughly half-a-million years.

Dawkins praises two scientists named Nilsson and Pelger for solving this problem. They created a computer model that showed the evolution of the eye in a relatively short time span that would fit the espoused theory. However, Dawkins does admit ‘Nilsson and Pelger made no attempts to simulate the inner workings of cells. He also says, ‘They started their story after the invention of a single light-sensitive cell’ and ‘They worked at the level of tissues…rather than the level of individual cells’.

Dawkins says, 'we have to start somewhere’, so we started after the ‘invention’ of the light-sensitive cell. Never mind the question as to who or how the technology of this cell was ‘invented’, the impression is that we don’t want to be bored with details, so the scientists skipped the boring inner workings of the cell.

Dawkins continues, ‘The transparent layer was allowed to undergo localized random mutations of its refractive index. They then let the model deform itself at random, constrained only by the requirement that any change must be small and must be an improvement on what went before.’

‘Unlike human designers, natural selection can't go downhill not even if there is a tempting higher hill on the other side of the valley’.

‘The results were swift and decisive. And then, almost like a conjuring trick, a portion of this transparent filling condensed into a local, spherical sub-region of higher refractive index.’

It is ironic that he would say that this appears like a conjuring trick. That is exactly what happens. The computer model is conjuring the evidence it was designed to show. It is not revealing any true evidence. The computer program is outputting only what it was written to project.

Dawkins goes on to herald the fact that the evolved eye on the computer screen achieved the Mattiessen’s ratio perfectly. The Mattiessen’s ratio is the optimum value for ratio between the length of the lens and the radius. Once again, we should ask what has been proven? Is it by chance that an optimum lens was formed? Or could Nilsson and Pilger have constructed their computer program with knowledge of the Mattiessen ratio that they wanted to ‘prove’. Dawkins said, ‘Nilsson and Pelger's computer model homed in unerringly on Mattiessen's ratio.’ Did evolutionary chance home in on this, or is the program designed with boundaries that prevented the experiment from stepping outside of this ratio?

Now, I’m only a layman and do not pretend to be a scientist, but this sounds suspiciously like wishful thinking to me.

So now, in line with the evidence offered above, in brief, of course, I intend to do something different. We are going to take two sets of conflicting evidence and put them to a judicial test. One set of evidence has been presented, in brief, with the barest of editorialising, and I will attempt to present the other side of the argument with no more editorialising than that.

I’m going to start this piece in a rather contentious manner, as there is a clear lack of conformity when it comes to judging Scripture against other ancient texts.There are three eye-witness accounts to the life of Julius Caesar, all of them by Roman historians or statesmen. No-one questions these sources at all. They point to the fact there are coins with his head on them, that the territories he conquered bear witness to his deeds and life, and that there was at least one eye-witness to his assassination.

No-one questions his existence.

The best, and latest complete manuscript we have for ‘The Iliad’ dates back to about 300 AD, which is about six hundred years after it was written. There is no question asked about ‘The Iliad’. And I do understand that it’s not a contentious document, as the Bible is, but the same standards are not being applied here.

When I mentioned Simon Greenleaf, one of the regular readers replied with the caveat that ‘…he later became a Christian apologist…’. If this was as a result of his findings, it strengthens the case for the veracity of the Gospels. The fact that he became the Professor of Law at Harvard University in 1846 and wrote the classic ‘Treatise on the Law of Evidence’, seems to this reader to be proof of his incapacity to fairly judge anything. Because he became a Christian apologist, or because he was Professor of Law in 1846? I imagine he feels they would believe anything as far back as 1846. Nevertheless, he considered the Gospels to be near perfect evidence and, if he were a judge and this evidence were to be presented to him, would have to conclude that they were true.

Why? Because of the many so-called errors and inconsistencies. These are different people giving their evidence after the fact, and their evidence is so clearly non-collusary that it would have to be judged as truthful.

Luke is regarded by historians as a superb historian, as he gives place names and sets everything in a time and place, both in the Book of Acts and later in his Gospel account. The apostles, of whom Luke was not one, and the immediate disciples, of which he was, displayed a sense of ethics and morality that has seldom been equalled; never surpassed. So why would these men and women, who lived by such a high moral standard, lie about the single most important thing in their lives, and give their lives for this lie? Perhaps because they knew it to be the truth?

Voltaire, hardly a friend of Christianity, remarked that it would take a greater man then Jesus to invent a Jesus.

The entire Book of Acts shows the glory of God and the fallibility of his followers. The fact that Paul and Barnabas, who were like brothers, could part ways over a dispute about Mark, speaks of the fallibility of these men. The fact that Paul confronts Peter to his face when Peter suggests that new believers be circumcised, yet later insists that Timothy be circumcised, speaks of their fallibility.

The entire Bible is a story of the failure of the Jews to obey God’s edicts. It shows them in the worst possible light. Their greatest prophet, Moses, is forbidden by God from entering the Promised Land because of disobedience. Their greatest warrior, David, had feet of clay. Both a murderer and an adulterer.

Show me another history of a people that so denigrates themselves. Any other history, especially of an ancient race, show them to be brave, brilliant, honest, truthful and all the other traits we all hold dear. Except the Jews.

The Jews seem to show themselves in the most glaring light imaginable, and the brighter the light, the harsher the shadows. God is the light, and in that light, they would fall far short. And did. Frequently.

Then we come to the question of Jesus. He was a Jew, of the line of David, and the Gospel of Matthew shows His genealogy.  This is not some imaginary god, like the Greek or Persian gods, who inhabited a realm unknown and unknowable to humans. It puts Him in a time and place, and gives his lineage.

Celsus, when he wrote his criticism, was very obviously contradicting eye-witness reports, which was why I use his text. The fact that he wrote after the death of Christ, does not invalidate what he wrote, especially when the mocking style is considered.

Here is that text in full.

Celsus was a second century Roman author and avid opponent of Christianity. He went to great lengths to disprove the divinity of Jesus yet never denied His actual existence. Unfortunately for Celsus, he sets himself up for criticism by mimicking the exact accusations brought against Jesus by the pharisees which had already been addressed and refuted in the New Testament. There are two very important facts regarding Celsus which make him one of the most important witnesses in this discussion:

Though most secular passages are accused of being Christian interpolations, we can accept with certainty this is not the case with Celsus! The sheer volume of his writings (specifically designed to discredit Christianity) coupled with the hostile accusations presented in his work dismiss this chance immediately.

The idea of Celsus getting his information entirely from Christian sources (another recurring accusation against secular evidence) is wholly absurd. Though he is obviously aware of his opponents' beliefs (as anyone who is engaging in a debate should be), Celsus wrote his exposition in the form of a dialogue between a "Jewish Critic" and himself. This gives us cause to believe he used non-Christian (probably Jewish) sources.

On Jesus' Miracles: ‘Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain [magical] powers... He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god... It was by means of sorcery that He was able to accomplish the wonders which He performed... Let us believe that these cures, or the resurrection, or the feeding of a multitude with a few loaves... These are nothing more than the tricks of jugglers... It is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of [miraculous] power...’
Not only does Celsus confirm Jesus' existence, he also tries to debate the source of Jesus' miracles. Like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, Celsus tries to dismiss these miracles as both demonic possession and cheap parlour tricks. However, he is clearly grasping at straws: On one hand Celsus accuses Jesus of performing magic learned in Egypt, then later states it is by the power of possession, then states the miracles were not really miracles at all but were illusionary tricks performed by a deceiver, then finally states the miracles never occurred!
On the Virgin Birth: ‘Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her hands. His mother had been turned out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a Roman soldier named Panthera]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard.’
Celsus acknowledges Jesus' birth and existence but does not accept the concept of a virgin conception. He tries to dismiss Mary's premarital pregnancy as the result of an affair she had with a Roman soldier. Strangely enough, there is a very similar passage in the Jewish Talmud which makes the same accusation. This gives us reason to believe Celsus might have referenced Jewish sources for some of his arguments.
On the Apostles: ‘Jesus gathered around him ten or eleven persons of notorious character... tax-collectors, sailors, and fishermen... [He was] deserted and delivered up by those who had been his associates, who had him for their teacher, and who believed he was the saviour and son of the greatest God... Those who were his associates while alive, who listened to his voice, and enjoyed his instructions as their teacher, on seeing him subjected to punishment and death, neither died with nor for him... but denied that they were even his disciples, lest they die along with Him.’
Celsus' intentions were to argue that if the disciples really believed Jesus was the Son of God, they would not have forsaken Him at His arrest. Instead, he only ends up confirming the Biblical account! The Bible tells us when Jesus was arrested, the apostles denied being His followers. It was only upon Jesus' resurrection they understood the spiritual principles concerning Jesus' crucifixion and boldly went out to preach the Gospel. Celsus is also wrong with his statement, [they] neither died with nor for him. We are told by early historians all but one of the remaining apostles were killed for their faith.
On Jesus' Divinity: ‘One who was a God could neither flee nor be led away a prisoner... What great deeds did Jesus perform as God? Did he put his enemies to shame or bring to an end what was designed against him? No calamity happened even to him who condemned him... Why does he not give some manifestation of his divinity, and free himself from this reproach, and take vengeance upon those who insult both him and his Father?’
Celsus ridicules Jesus for the exact same reasons the Pharisees of His time ridiculed Him- if Jesus was the Son of God, why didn't He save Himself from the cross? Neither Celsus nor the Pharisees understood the spiritual implications of Jesus' death to atone for sin. Celsus also asks why no judgment came upon the Jews but history shows shortly after His death Jerusalem was invaded by the Romans, the Jewish temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people were dispersed for almost 2,000 years!
John the Baptist ‘If any one predicted to us that the Son of God was to visit mankind, he was one of our prophets, and the prophet of our God? John, who baptized Jesus, was a Jew.’
Celsus confirms Jesus' baptism by John but asserts that John was the only one who actually prophesied His coming- not the Old Testament
On the Crucifixion: ‘Jesus accordingly exhibited after His death only the appearance of wounds received on the cross, and was not in reality so wounded as He is described to have been.’
In this statement, Celsus confirms Jesus' death by crucifixion although he claims the only wounds Jesus received were those inflicted by the crucifixion (thus denying any previous torture had taken place). But not even history offers Celsus the benefit of a doubt as floggings were the standard form of torture given to victims prior to crucifixion. Celsus contradicts himself yet again when he later states Jesus was probably never even crucified but instead had an impostor die in His place!

Whether or not Jesus performed the miracles He was reported to have performed, cannot be substantiated in any way. Whether or not He rose from the dead is another matter entirely. All the disciples ran and hid after the crucifixion, yet a few days later, were as bold as lions. This was the chance for the Romans and the Jewish leaders to once and for all destroy this new religion: produce the body. The fact that they flogged them and murdered them in their thousands, is mute testimony to the fact that they had no body to produce.

If we accept the eye-witness reports in the Book of Acts, there were literally hundreds of them. And if we just extrapolate a little: imagine if someone said that had seen Steve Biko; that he had risen from the dead. It would be the easiest thing in the world to disprove it, not matter how ardent the belief or support for the idea. They would go to the grave and unearth the body. There it is.

Now I realise that’s thirty-six years ago, so let’s take someone more recent: Kader Asmal. Fairly recently deceased, someone claims he rose from the grave and he has an entire army of followers.

No problem disproving that, of course, because of modern technology. How about Paul Kruger? George Washington? Jan van Riebeeck? It’s all utterly ridiculous, because we know without a shadow of a doubt that we could, in all likelihood find some remnant of them, even if it is only bones. They were buried, and we know where they were buried.

The fact that the Christian religion spread the way it did is not, in itself surprising: Islam spread just as fast. However, Islam spread at the point of a sword, where it is hard to say no. Christianity spread in spite of the power of the sword wielded against believers.

So now, as an impartial judge, you have to weigh up the evidence, and here it is, in brief.

Four Gospels, written over a period of about eighty years, the earliest twenty-seven years or so after the death of Christ. The fact that Celsus, an enemy of Christianity, wrote what he did, in the way he did. The fact that no-one ever did, or it seems, could , produce the body of Jesus, attests to His resurrection.

The four Gospels complement each other, without mimicking each other. Their story is judged, by one of the greatest legal minds in America, to be true, because of the incongruences.

So now, let’s weigh up the evidence for evolution. Are Mendel’s Laws valid? According to geneticists they are. Is entropy real? According to the laws governing physics, especially the first and second Law of Thermodynamics it is. Has chaos ever resulted in ever-increasing order? It has never been observed to be the case.

Has the Stanley Miller experiment ever produced anything further than Amino Acids, such as protein, without which life cannot happen? In the ‘50s, in the USA, there was a thought to perform an organ transplant, from a chimpanzee to a human, because of their genetic similarity, but it was aborted. Why? They discovered that a pig’s organs are more suitable to humans than our closest living relative in the animal kingdom.

Now we get to the evolution of man and start, of course, with Lucy, the earliest ancestor of man, of which we have a few hundred bones, spread over a wide area, making up forty percent of a skeleton. From this it is assumed she was bi-pedal and came down from the trees.

Java Man has even fewer pieces of evidence in its favour: a few skullcaps, a femur and a few teeth. More evidence was found later, but all of it almost equally flimsy.

Peking Man, which had modern human skeletons mixed up with the evidence in many of the sites.

As a jury, you are faced with this evidence, and have to put aside personal feelings. If this were the case, how would you find?

This is not the Scopes Monkey Trial we’re talking about here; this is merely weighing up verifiable evidence and reaching a conclusion. According to Simon Greenleaf, he would have found in favour of the Gospels. He never had to judge the validity of the theory of evolution, but you have a chance to play jury.

Put aside personal prejudice, if you can, and judge the matters purely in the evidence presented.

And you can let me know when you’ve reached a verdict.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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