The Imperfect Design – Evidence for Evolution!

Image of a beatufiul eyeOf all the species in the world, the evolution of human beings is the most controversial. People, especially religious ones cannot stand the idea that humans don’t have a divine origin and existence and that we are related to the other animals. For fans of creationism or intelligent design, it is hard to accept that humans underwent the process of evolution to reach the current state. They often site the human body especially the eye as a perfect example of design as our body is too complicated to have evolved naturally according to them. Well, I am okay with it provided when a trained person looks at this so called “design”, he should not be puzzled as to why certain parts are in a particular way because when we look carefully at the human body, that is precisely what we feel.

Therefore I would like to call on the scientific and engineering outlook of the reader in this article because I am going to site a few examples where it is required for you to think as to whether we are actually designed or not. Let me first talk about design as we understand from our lives. Any good designer would design a machine or a drawing with the minimal amount of defects. Further he or she would make sure that the design is simple and optimized enough so that troubleshooting is easy later on. Furthermore, he or she would make sure that there is a logic behind putting a component in a particular place. Therefore a good designer can easily make out whether a machine’s design is defective or illogical in some way by looking at it.

I request you to look at the following few examples to have an insight into what I mean:

  1. The Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve – It is a nerve that supplies motor function to the larynx and travels from the brain to the larynx. However, it does not take a direct route. Instead it goes all the way to the heart, wraps around a major artery and then goes up to the larynx. It is puzzling as to why the nerve takes such a detour for no reason. In fact, in giraffes, the nerve travels 15 feet to the heart and then goes up to the larynx which doesn’t make sense. If we were designed, then the designer would simply put the nerve in a direct route from the brain to the larynx. It’s as simple as that. What really happened is that  the fish like ancestors of modern tetrapods had the nerve direct as the heart was above the gills, as it is in modern fishes. But over the course of evolution, as the neck extended, the heart became lower in the body and unfortunately the laryngeal nerve got caught on the wrong side of the heart. A designer’s eye would easily dismiss this as a bad design. In the following video, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins will demonstrate the detour of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in a giraffe.
  2. The Human Eye – This is cited as the most perfect example of intelligent design.  But from an engineering perspective, it is not perfect at all. A person who make a camera will make sure that all the wiring is at the back of the film and not in front of it. Similarly if a eye is designed, then obviously all the nerves should be behind the retina. Unfortunately in human eyes, the nerves are in front of the retina. And where the optic nerve leaves the eye, there is a hole that creates a blind spot, which is the reason why our eyes jiggle. We don’t have a functional reason for our eyes to be this way except that historically the common ancestor of all vertebrates did not have a better retina available to work with. Now, those of you who want to bring in God’s “divine purpose” behind this should know that an octopus’s eye doesn’t have this problem. All the wiring is behind the retina for the octopus. In fact, the octopus eye is a much better “design” compared to humans. This link will tell you exactly what I mean by blind spot. The famous German psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz once said that if an engineer had given him the human eye, he would send it back. The video here would show you how the eye can actually evolve naturally without any divine intervention.
  3. Vestigial Structures – An engineer or designer would want his design clean. He wouldn’t want an unwanted component in the machine without serving a purpose. As in the human body and in other species, there are plenty of structures that do not serve any particular purpose. Right from the DNA to visible organs, one wonders why a designer would put them there. The answer as to why these vestigial structures such as the pelvis in snakes, human appendix, the male nipples, the tail bone etc. exist comes from evolution. These are relics from a common ancestry where these structures once had a function. As humans evolved, some of these functions either stopped or changed thereby creating these vestiges. Not only in the organs but also in the DNA we find vestiges. There are several genes that form part of what is called genetic junk. The only reason they are there is because evolution didn’t clean it up properly.
  4. Fatal Errors  – Image of Ectopic Pregnancy - Courtesy Mayo FoundationThere are some really fatal mistakes in the human body. Only because of modern medical care that we can counter death caused by these flaws. For instance,  in women, the fertilized egg can mistakenly implant into the fallopian tube, cervix or ovary instead of the uterus  causing ectopic pregnancy because of a cavity between the ovary and the fallopian tube. Before modern surgery, this used to kill both the woman and her baby. In men, the testes develop first in the abdomen and then migrate to the scrotum. This creates weak points in the abdominal wall where hernias can form in future and without modern surgery, it is a sure way to die. The human pharynx is yet another design flaw. It is the passage used for both ingestion and respiration, which increases the risk of choking. And as mentioned above the appendix is a vestigial organ that serves no known purpose. However, if you get appendicitis, it is a sure shot way to die. 

These are just a few examples of imperfections in the seemingly perfect human body. There are hundreds of such examples and in some cases the design flaw is so much that it can be fatal as described above. A designer with any level of logic or common sense would never create a body like this. Therefore the only conclusion that can be made is that either there is no designer or the designer is a very bad designer. Everything from top to the bottom in our body is trade-offs that came about through millions of years of evolution. It’s an undeniable fact.

Naadan Chilli Chicken Recipe

You may call it Naadan  or Country chilly chicken or whatever you want but it is one of the tastiest versions of Chilli Chicken I have ever had, thanks to a famous chef who described the dish to us and my parents whose exceptional culinary skills inspired me to learn cooking. This version is different in its preparation and the exquisite taste that it derives out of it. Without further ado, let me get on with the materials required.

Requirements:

  1. Chicken, cut in small pieces – 500 gm
  2. Green chilli, cut along its length – 8
  3. Ginger, cut in very small pieces – 2 table spoons
  4. Garlic, cut in small pieces – 2 table spoons
  5. Vattal Mulaku (Refer: Capsicum annuum),  ground into paste after boiling in vinegar – half a cup
  6. Refined oil – half a cup
  7. Tomatoes, cut in small pieces – 1 cup
  8. Capsicum, cut in pices – half a cup
  9. Salt – to taste
  10. Onion – cut in cubical pieces – 1 cup
  11. Water – half a cup

Preparation:

  1. Shallow fry the chicken pieces after applying salt and red chilly powder
  2. On a hot pan, add half cup refined oil and saute the ginger and garlic along with onion and green chilli
  3. Add Vattal Mulaku paste and salt to this mixture along with the half cup water and stir for a couple of minutes
  4. Add the fried chicken and tomato and close the pan for 10 minutes
  5. Add the capsicum and turn off the flame.

The particular aspect of this chilli chicken preparation is that it does not use any artificial color. The red color of this dish comes from the paste that we prepare after boiling the Vattal Mulaku in vinegar and grinding it into a paste. Some people fry the chicken after chilling it from 2 to 24 hours. I don’t suggest that because even otherwise the dish is perfect. It is better to serve this chilly chicken dish with bread. You may try it exactly the same way as described here or make your own modifications. Let me know your feedback.

Mars Orbiter Mission – A step in the right direction for India

mangalyaan

Mangalyaan in orbit (Artist’s Impression)

People often criticize scientific endeavors especially the ones pertaining to space travel as a waste of time and money. The Mars Orbiter Mission of India also known as Mangalyaan had its share of criticism throughout its development. In the midst of all this, the craft lifted off to space today, 5th November 2013 at 2:38 PM IST and was inserted into an orbit around the Earth with remarkable precision a few minutes later. This first step is a remarkable milestone in the history of Indian Space Program. Of course it is only the first of the three stages of the entire mission but it is something worth to be proud.

When the Indian Space Program was started in 1969, little did anyone know that India would become part of an emerging Asian Space Race. Our technologically superior neighbor has made excellent strides in the field of space travel. They had their first man and first woman in space using indigenous technology and now they are building their first space station. However, India’s achievements should not be seen in a lesser light because the focus of ISRO is more on unmanned missions. And having been able to start off successfully in a Mars mission is something that should invite our neighbor’s envy.

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

Mars has never been an easy target for space faring nations. The first ever mission to Mars was by the erstwhile Soviet Union as early as 10 October 1960. The heat of Cold War would have been probably the driving force to attempt a Mars mission just 3 years after Sputnik. The high failure rate see throughout the historic timeline of Mars exploration had made many a person including me quite apprehensive of the Mangalyaan mission. Even the recent failure of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 mission of Russia and China in 2011 made people raise their eyebrows when it was announced that India is eyeing the red planet. It is exhilarating to finally see the probe lift off the ground in the PSLV-C25 rocket. ISRO’s faith in PSLV has paid off once again and we are on our way to become the fourth nation to reach Mars if everything goes according to plan.

India is a country with great economic and cultural divide. It may be justified to ask whether the mission was worth the 4.5 billion rupees spent on it when other national priorities such as women’s education and healthcare in rural India could be easily met with the amount. After all it is just a satellite that will orbit around Mars and send back signals of what it studies. People can ask what difference is this mission going to make. It is a difficult question to answer and would require vast amount of research. However, one thing can be said about it. Comparing India’s Mars mission to that of United States or Russia may be utterly unfair in my opinion. United States and Soviet Union had too much funding during the cold war to perform mission after mission despite the number of failures they encountered. And still they can afford to send rovers and other advanced instruments to deep space and afford to fail in it. This is India’s first interplanetary mission and should be compared to Mariner – 9 of United States which was launched back in 1971. Mariner – 9 was an orbiter mission and that is exactly what Mangalyaan is all about and must be seen as such. It is true that USA and USSR were having landers and rovers back in the ’70s but that fact should not be used to demean India’s mission.

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Mission of India is a step in the right direction. We may have poverty and prejudice within Indian society but one must see the bigger picture. As part of the human race, it is our duty to explore and colonize other planets. Saying that it will ensure the continuity of our species might be too much of a cliche but that is most certainly a part of interplanetary mission. Interplanetary missions in its true sense has not yet taken place since that would mean going to a distant planet and coming back. For that reason I am not very fond of the Mars One program that is currently seeking volunteers. A true interplanetary mission must ensure that participants are capable of going back and forth between the planets. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama did not maroon themselves in the places they explored. They did go back to their homes to tell the stories about their journey. It is important thus for any manned or unmanned Mars mission to go there and return in order to be fully interplanetary. Anyway, I feel very proud of my country’s capability to perform a feat that many have failed in. Our two hostile neighbors in my opinion should learn from us instead of taunting us unnecessarily over petty border issues.

Uzbek Plov Recipe

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or Osh

The Uzbek Plov also known as Pilaf or Osh is an exceptionally delicious style of biryani from Uzbekistan. Widely claimed to be Stalin’s favourite dish, this rice and mutton based recipe from Uzbekistan is easier to prepare compared to other conventional biryanis. It can be prepared as follows:

Materials Required

  • Lamb Meat cut in squares (preferably of a fat lamb) – 0.5 to 1 kg
  • 2 – 3 cup Basmati Rice (or Uzbek Rice)
  • 3 – 4 big carrots cut in very small pieces
  • 2 Onions cut in medium pieces
  • 5 Green chilly cut in small pices
  • Vegetable Oil
  • 4 – 5 garlic with skin
  • Salt – 2.5 teaspoon
  • Black Pepper powder – 1 teaspoon
  • Other spices if necessary (cinnamon, clove etc.) – 1 teaspoon
  • Coriander powder – 2 teaspoon
  • Coriander Leaves

Preparation:

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or Osh

This dish is to be prepared in good flame in the beginning and hence the vessel you use must have a thick bottom. This ensures that the meat doesn’t get charred.

  • Wash the basmati rice and keep it soaked in lukewarm water before you start the preparation.
  • Pour the vegetable oil in the main vessel and wait until it gets heated.
  • Once the oil gets heated up, add the mutton pieces and fry them until they become light brown.
  • Add the onion, carrot and green chilly to this and mix them until the the onion turns golden brown.
  • Add salt, pepper powder and other spices that you have selected and continue to mix. You can reduce the flame at this stage.
  • Spread the mixture evenly. Filter out the water and add the rice to this mixture. Make sure that the rice completely covers the mutton, carrot and onion mixture. You should stop mixing at this stage.
  • Pour water to this without disturbing the rice distribution. The water should completely submerge the rice.
  • Once the water starts boiling, close the the lid. Reduce the flame further.
  • Wait for 10 minutes and check whether the water has been absorbed into the rice.
  • Place the garlic pieces on top of the rice.
  • If the rice hasn’t got cooked at this stage, create a small opening at the center of the mixture and add water there without disturbing the structure.
  • Close the lid and wait for another 10 minutes.
  • Repeat this process until the rice is cooked.
  • Turn off the flame and keep the vessel undisturbed for 30 minutes.

You can add coriander leaves after 30 minutes and mix the dish well. When adding water the second time, be sparing in the quantity used because you should not overcook the rice.

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or OshYour Uzbek Plov is now ready. You can use Yougurt Kachumber as a side dish. What makes the taste so exquisite is the lamb fat. The mutton gets fried both in the vegetable oil and the fat that comes out of the meat. The first time I prepared this, it didn’t come right. So don’t be disheartened. Try again and you will be fine. The day I saw this recipe in the newspaper, things were a mess but I learned from my mistakes and so should you. This recipe has one extra ingredient, which is green chilly but trust me, it makes the dish amazing. Let me know your feedback!

Mother of All Martial Arts? Think Again!

I added a question mark in the title because the term mother hardly applies in this context. Mother means a direct ancestor. Hence, mother of all martial arts means an art to which all martial arts in the world trace a direct lineage. This title is often given to the South Indian martial art Kalaripayattu. Being a person from Kerala, I was proud to see Kalaripayattu referred this way. However, my skepticism grew overtime and recently I have started to question the very premise of Kalaripayattu being the originator of all the other martial arts practiced in the world. I had written on similar grounds in a previous blog post and was met with violent criticism from devotees of Kalari. I don’t maintain any grudges towards the people who were abusive in their comments but I thought it was necessary to reiterate some aspects I discussed in that post for the sake of clarity. As I said before, and will say again, this article does not demean Kalaripayattu in any manner.

image of kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu

Origin of a martial art like any other art has two levels viz. the historic and the legendary. It is hard to trace history to a time when data redundancy was much higher when compared to modern times. Further, it is often the legendary version that grows out of proportion overtime and overshadows the historic part. For example, it is said that Parasurama created the state of Kerala by throwing an axe which caused the water to recede away from Gokarna to Kanyakumari. Well, on the face of it, the story is funny and unbelievable. What kind of a person can pull off such a feat? Similarly, legends say that there existed aircrafts in ancient India such as the Pushpaka Vimana, which is quite questionable. The Vaimanika Shastra written by sage Bharadwaj was studied by the Indian Institute of Science and was proven to be just a fanciful text without any scientific credence. Legend attributes many superhuman feats to Jesus, which are scientifically impossible since he was nothing but a normal human being. Hence, legends are unbelievable without investigation.

The reason I spoke so much on legends is because the famous Bodhidharma is also a legend. The alleged creator of Shaolin Kung Fu could be just another ancient legend which went out of proportion due to poor data management. Just as I spoke about Jesus, the person Bodhidharma would have very well existed. And it is also possible that he had gone to China. But then attributing the currently existing martial arts forms to him is incredible. Especially the claim that he taught Kalaripayattu to the monks of the Shaolin monastery since he wanted them to have a fit body to cope with the strenuous sitting meditation. However, there are a few logical errors with this claim as discussed below:

1. Kalaripayattu as a martial art came into prominence during the 11th and 12th century. Some claim its existence as early as 9th century. One must understand that India was not a single country in the past. Kerala itself was divided into many small kingdoms. Fighting arts were required for survival since each of these kingdoms fought among each other. Bodhidharma was a person who lived in the 6th century, which was well before the emergence of the art of Kalaripayattu. Therefore, his attribution to this martial art is questionable and hence the claim that he went to China and taught Kalaripayattu breaks down.

2. If Kalaripayattu did not exist in 6th century, what was the art that Bodhidharma practiced? Was it called by a different name? These are questions that historians find difficult to answer. If the art that Bodhidharma practiced was an earlier version of Kalaripayattu, then it could be an ancestor to both Kalaripayattu and Wushu if that is what he taught the Shaolin monks. But then the notion that Wushu came from Kalaripayattu would not hold. Humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor. It means that humans did not come from chimpanzees but are cousins to them. Similarly, if Bodhidharma indeed teach the Shaolin monks a primitive Indian art that is an ancestor to both Wushu and Kalaripayattu, then it cannot be claimed that Wushu came from Kalaripayattu.

3. The Chinese civilization existed in different dynasties over 2,500 years before Bodhidharma arrived and allegedly taught the more “superior” martial arts which he brought from India. It is quite hard to believe that the Chinese waited for over 25 centuries without a superior fighting art for themselves. Throughout the history of China, there have been wars both internally and externally. The need for a superior fighting system was paramount since the beginning of their civilization. They would not have waited for Bodhidharma in any case.

4. As discussed in my previous post, even after the creation of the martial arts at the Shaolin, the real application of that in combat outside the temple came much later. The events between the 8th and 15th centuries are not well documented. What were the monks doing during that period? And then from 16th century onwards the martial arts of Shaolin flourished and spread across. Either the systems of Shaolin were kept a secret during that period or there wasn’t much to show outside. There were and still are martial arts that are superior to Shaolin kung fu that were developed outside the temples.

5. The martial arts practiced in China today have little or no influence from Hinduism, which is an integral part of Kalaripayattu. If Chinese Wushu is a direct descendant of Kalaripayattu, there has to be at least a trace of Hinduism in it. I never found it and neither has any martial artist I know. Even non-Hindus who practice Kalaripayattu worship and abide by the covenant of the Kalari Gods. Even though Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk, if he did practice Kalaripayattu, there would be at least some reference to the Kalari Gods in his teachings. We don’t see them mentioned in the Shaolin martial arts at all. Hence, him being the practitioner of Kalaripayattu is quite questionable.

My previous post mentioned about several martial arts that existed before the arrival of Bodhidharma. And it is quite evident that the currently existing arts are descended from those arts and not from Kalaripayattu due to the reasons stated above.

I would also like to bring into light the concept of independent development. There is a limit to the type of movements that can be performed using the human body. We may use permutations and combinations to find out the number of movements that are mathematically possible but physical limitations drill down the number. Hence, any martial art used in war would eventually settle down to a few practically possible moves. There would of course be extra movements that are practiced to maintain flexibility and strength. Therefore, martial arts can and do indeed develop indigenously and independently without requiring an ancestor.

To summarize, the following issues need to be addressed by people who taut up Kalaripayattu as the mother of all martial arts:

a. The temporal disagreement between Bodhidharma’s arrival in China and the documented origin of Kalaripayattu.

b. Existence of martial arts in China before and after Bodhidharma. Especially those that have direct links with the martial arts practiced today.

c. Lack of Hindu Gods and teachings in Shaolin as well as other martial arts in China.

If anyone wants to address the points mentioned in this article without getting emotional, nationalistic, ad hominem or outright wrong, I would welcome the discussion. As a word of caution, unlike my previous post, if someone resorts to ad hominem in this, I would simply remove that comment without wasting time answering them.

References

1. Bodhidharma. (2013, September 21). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhidharma
2. Brief History of Gongfu. (2013, May 19). Retrieved from Wu Taiji Quan: http://www.wutaijiquan.com/wutaijiquan_history.html
3. Chi You. (2013, September 22). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chi_You
4. Chinese martial arts. (2013, September 23). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_martial_arts
5. Chinese Mythology. (2013, July 11). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_mythology
6. Eighteen Arms of Wushu. (2013, September 24). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighteen_Arms_of_Wushu
7. Is there a relationship with kalaripayattu, indian martial arts, shaolin kung fu, and bodhidharma? (2013, May 19). Retrieved from Mystic Banana: http://www.mysticbanana.com/is-there-a-relationship-with-kalaripayattu-indian-martial-arts-shaolin-kung-fu-and-bodhidharma.html/
8. Josey, J. (2010, January 20). Kalaripayattu – A Game of Eyes Shut And Mouth Wide Open. Retrieved from Tales and traumas of a ‘Teenage Pretty Boy’: http://my.opera.com/prettyboy/blog/kalaripayattu-a-game-of-eyes-shut-and-mouth-wide-open
9. Kung fu (term). (2013, August 20). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kung_fu_%28term%29
10. Kung Fu Styles. (2013, May 19). Retrieved from Learn Me Kung Fu: http://www.lmkungfu.com/styles.html
11. The Mother of All Martial Arts : Kalari or Kalarippayattu. (2007, June 23). Retrieved from HitXP – A Blogzine by Gurudev: http://www.hitxp.com/articles/sports/kalarippayattu-oldest-martial-arts/
12. Yellow Emperor. (2013, September 18). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Emperor

Fish Fort Cochin Recipe

Fish Fort Cochin or Fish Fort Kochi is a delicious recipe for people who love experimenting with fish curry. We heard about this dish two years ago when my dad met someone from Fort Kochi who detailed how to concoct this incredibly tasty curry. The original name of this dish is unknown but we started calling it Fish Fort Kochi. Here is how you can prepare it:

Ingredients

1. Fish, cut in medium sized pieces (any fleshy fish would do) – 1 kg
2. Peeled and crushed garlic – 1 handful (small hand)
3. Crushed Ginger – 1 (3 inches long)
4. Green Chilly – 10 (cut into small pieces)
5. Tomato – 1 (big, cut into small pieces)
6. Kudampuli (Gambooge) – 1 (big, cut into pieces)
7. Chilly powder – 4 teaspoons
8. Coriander powder – 2 teaspoons
9. Turmeric powder – 1/4 teaspoons
10. Coconut oil – 3 tablespoons
11. Clay pot

Preparation

1. Apply turmeric over the fish nicely and keep it aside
2. Heat the oil in the clay pot until it boils and add the ginger, garlic and green chilly and cook until golden brown
3. Add tomato to this mixture and stir for 5 minutes
4. Add chilly powder and coriander powder and stir slightly for 5 more minutes
5. Add water in stages in small quantities. Make sure that the gravy is in paste form and never gets too fluid. Stir continuously.
6. Add salt and kudampuli and once the gravy starts boiling add the fish
7. One the fish starts heating up in the boiling gravy, reduce the flame
8. Stir the center of the clay pot so that the gravy doesn’t burn and stick on it
9. Once most of the water boils away, stop the flame and let it cool

Special Instructions

It is preferable to eat this preparation after it has cooled. If you can wait for a day, better. The specialty of this curry is that it doesn’t use onion at all. Be careful not to add onion even by mistake. If you are keeping it for a day, do not take it off the clay pot. It is advisable to use ginger and garlic in their natural form instead of buying the paste.

Enjoy the dish and Let me know your feedback.

The Dubai Reasoning!

It is surprising how misunderstood atheists are. Most people really do not know why atheists become atheists. There are popular misconceptions such as atheists do not believe in God because they think that something that cannot be seen cannot be believed. Another misconception is that atheists are messengers of evil or the devil. Yet another misconception is that atheists believe in evolution which states humans came from monkeys. All of these arguments against atheism are ignorant and straw-man to say the least.

Mohanlal in Kilichundan Mampazham

Mohanlal in Kilichundan Mampazham

There is a popular Malayalam film named Kilichundan Mampazham. In that Mohanlal talks about belief. He says that just because one has not seen Dubai, doesn’t mean Dubai doesn’t exist. So far two close friends of mine have used the same logic to me while talking about atheism. They say that if I haven’t seen God, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Well, first of all I must tell everyone that it is not because we can’t see God that we don’t believe in God’s existence. This argument stems from the lack of understanding of what evidence means. People are yet not clear with the concepts of direct and indirect evidence.

I have not seen my brain yet. In fact most humans have not seen their own brain. However, we know that it exists. We are aware of its existence from various indirect evidences that we can verify. For instance, we can perform an EEG or a PET scan and verify that we have a brain. Other indirect evidences would be the cognitive processes that goes on inside our head all the time. We think therefore, we do have a brain. We really don’t need to cut open the head to verify its existence but if we do, we can be sure that will see our brain. When a crime happens, the detective doesn’t see the crime directly in most cases. He collects evidences such as fingerprints, footprints, blood samples, video and audio recordings, letters and emails, chat scripts, witness testimonies and many other things before drawing his conclusions as to who might be the culprit.

Similarly, we know that Dubai exists from a variety of indirect evidences such as personal descriptions of people who visited that place, photographs and documentaries and news related to that place among others. All these convince us that Dubai exists even though we haven’t visited it. Hence the argument that atheists reject God because they haven’t seen God is meaningless. It is not just the direct evidence that we verify but also indirect evidence. There hasn’t been any testable way to prove that God exists both directly or indirectly. Which is one of the main reasons why we don’t believe in a God.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence“. However, we must use that statement carefully in any context. Or rather, we shouldn’t misuse that statement. When I speak about aliens, some people ask me how am I so sure about their existence. Of course I am not fully sure about their existence. However, the indirect evidence is so overwhelming. At the time I am writing this, scientists have discovered over 700 planets and over two dozen of them are in the habitable zone around their parent stars, which means they can harbor life as we know it.

Now, life as we know it alludes to the carbon based life form. Carbon as you might have studied in high school, has a property called catenation. It can form long chains of molecules that form “backbone” for other molecules and atoms to attach. Our DNA is one such molecule which can self replicate and therefore form the base for life to evolve. DNA may not be the base for life in other planets but still it is highly likely that it will be a carbon based self replicating molecule. When scientists search for life in other planets, they look for signatures of life such as oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle, presence of organic molecules, presence of moisture in the atmosphere etc. And intelligent or industrialized life form would have further signatures such industrial waste gases, radiation, presence of radio waves artificial light sources etc. These are prominent indirect evidences that scientists are looking for all the time in the planets that are being discovered.

exoplanet artists impression

Exoplanet (Artist’s Impression)

We haven’t found direct evidence for aliens because we have barely started looking. It’s been just over 110 years since we invented radio. Which means, the farthest those early signals have gone is 110 light years. Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across and have an estimated 400 billion stars. And there are roughly a hundred billion such galaxies in the observable universe (give or take a few billion). In the last 20 years since the first discovery of an exoplanet, we have found over 700 confirmed planets. Hence, the discovery rate is quite high and in the coming years, the number of planets we find will be truly mind blowing. Thus, the day is not far before we find the first clues for a life form that is truly alien. And when that happens, our civilization will be changed forever.

Coming back to the main topic of discussion, evidence can be direct or indirect. In science, a theory can be verified through experiment, through observation or through mathematics. In addition, there is a rigorous process of peer-review. It is only when such a verification occurs that a theory gets accepted in the scientific community. Scientific community is hence very rigid because there is no room for error there. Therefore, any Tom, Dick and Harry cannot come up with a theory and say, “Hey, this is my new theory, accept it.”

God, is a concept invented at a time when there wasn’t an understanding about what was going on in the world. To be more specific, the God in our culture(s) is basically the “God of the gaps”. People tried to plug in the various holes in their knowledge about the world using God(s). Religion was a political and cultural construct invented in order to keep people in control by exploiting this ignorance. However, today we know so much about the world around us that we can start pulling out the plugs from many such holes and put our scientific understanding in place. For example, we didn’t know how things fall in the past, but we do today. So, we pulled out the corresponding plug and put theory of gravity in. We didn’t know why there was a retrograde motion for Mars and other planets, but we do today. So, we pulled out the plug and put Heliocentric theory in. We didn’t know why diseases occur, but we do today. So, we pulled out the plug and put germ theory in. So as and when we learn a new thing about this world, one God disappears or as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on.

This was a simple article about the atheistic viewpoint. If this doesn’t provoke thought in a religious person and helps him understand why atheist reject God, then I am not sure what will. Any questions on the content of this post is welcome. Thanks for your time.

The Einstein Argument!

There are people who believe in God because their parents or community does so. There are some who follow the “because there is something, someone must have created it” logic. Yet some others believe because they are not sure but do not want to take “risk“. However, recently I heard an interesting preposition. It basically preys on my keen interests in astronomy and astrophysics and states that as I learn more about the universe, some day I would realize that there is a God and leave my atheistic point of view.

The source of this partially ignorant preposition is even more interesting. It uses Albert Einstein as a yardstick to measure the highest level of intellectual achievement and then uses that as an argument against atheism saying, “Even Albert Einstein believed in God. And you are talking about atheism.” The words “even” and “you” are the problem sin this sentence, which you will understand as you read on. The preposition also takes its position from a very popular urban legend where Einstein as a student seemingly “proved” God to his atheist professor.

There is no doubt that Einstein is one of the greatest scientists of all times. However, using him as a yardstick of intellectual achievement in my opinion grossly demeans other great scientists who lived during his time, before him and after him. The fact is Einstein actually never believed in a God. Of course he was not an atheist. He preferred to be an agnostic, which is good as a scientist since agnosticism is in many ways like atheism except for the part where it accepts the lack of surety as to whether a supernatural creator created this universe and then interferes with the events happening in it.

Hence, touting up his name  in order to sell one’s religious point of view doesn’t make sense. There are other issues in using Einstein’s name in this case of a supreme God who has influence over how events unfold in the fabric of reality. First of all when we talk about an intelligent creator being, it is a scientific hypothesis. We are talking about an intelligent being that has the capability of various feats. Then the question that would naturally follow would be “Where did this being come from?

Secondly, Einstein had big problems with quantum mechanics. The world as we know can be divided according to two models. The one for which Einstein is famous for which is general relativity and the other is quantum mechanics. Now, in order to describe reality completely, we need both the theories.

General relativity goes about explaining the universe at a macroscopic scale. It is very beautiful and elegant and describes a predictable universe. It appears that Einstein’s obsession with predictability of the universe is one of the reasons why he is an agnostic. Unfortunately, at the most fundamental levels, the universe is totally unpredictable. The works of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli and a whole bunch of other scientists during Einstein’s time and afterwards conclusively prove that the quantum mechanical nature of our universe at the fundamental level is unpredictable.

It is obvious that Einstein had a problem with it because he wanted his predictable view of the universe to work at all levels, which it didn’t. If quantum mechanics was just a theory that couldn’t be verified experimentally, then he would have easily brushed it aside and moved on. But that was not the case. Experiments after experiments kept proving the quantum mechanical nature of reality at the fundamental level. This is where Einstein had a problem and he went on making the famous statement, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”

To his death, Einstein didn’t accept quantum mechanics even though he knew that it was a true way of understanding nature at the microscopic scale. In fact, towards his later years, he became a recluse and refused to read the papers of new scientists who were making excellent progress in the field. It is said that he wasn’t even aware that two new forces viz. the strong force and the weak force were discovered. He spent his remaining few years of life working on one particular problem, which is combining electromagnetism and gravity, which were the only two forces known to him.

So, as a scientist, his achievements in relativistic mechanics, gravity, photoelectric effect etc. are excellent. However, he had this exceptionally biased point of view towards quantum mechanics, which was the other half of reality. It is funny to know that it was his own earlier works in physics that lead to the creation of quantum mechanics. That probably might have disturbed him further.

To summarize, touting up Einstein’s name in religious arguments is futile because of two reasons. First, he never believed in a God and was an agnostic. Second, he was biased enough to discard one half of reality that describes the universe in order to favor the other half. Further, he was never the only intellectual of his time or anytime for that matter. Thomas Edison, Paul Dirac, James Chadwick, Paul Ehrenfest, Sigmund Freud, Niels Bohr, Pierre Curie, George Gamow, Julian Huxley, Frank Whittle, Alan Turing, William Shockley, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Schrodinger etc. are some of the scientists and inventors during Einstein’s time who were confirmed atheists. Other famous historic and contemporary atheist scientists and inventors include Jim Al-Khalili, Svante Arrhenius, Subrahmanyan Chandrashekhar, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Sandra Faber, Richard Feynman, Alan Guth, Wilhelm Ostwald, Edmund Halley, Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, Lawrence Krauss, Joseph Louis Lagrange, Alfred Kinsey, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Alfred Nobel, Sir Roger Penrose, Carl Sagan, Leonard Susskind, Steven Weinberg, Richard Stallman etc.

We can’t in anyway say that Einstein was somehow more intelligent than them or his contributions are greater than all these people or that his religious point of view is somehow better than them. Einstein himself is known for his seemingly ambiguous statements about God and religion. Hence, to conclude, it is a futile attempt to use Einstein’s religious point of view as an argument against atheism.

The Common Ancestry Problem!

Evolution is a crucial process in the realm of biology, geology, cosmology etc. However, it has been the subject of debates because of misunderstanding that stems out of misinformation. This misunderstanding is often misused against the Theory of Evolution and people who do this get away because they know that common man does not really understand what exactly is going on in evolution. In this article, I will explain Biological Evolution and the concept of Common Ancestry in simple terms so that even common man can get a framework of knowledge on the subject from where he can build up further.

image of beautiful sandy island

To understand evolution and common ancestry, we must first understand what is “genetic mutation” and “natural selection“. Hence, before we begin, let us make a few assumptions that could simplify the explanation. Imagine an island in the Pacific Ocean. Let’s say it is a sandy island with trees, bushes and plenty of insects and other small creatures etc. Also let’s assume that there is a population of a particular species of lizards living there. Let us call them “Species – A“. Now, these lizards have particular characteristics based on the environment they live in. These characteristics include skin color, body strength, agility, heat resistance and so on.

image of sandy island lizard

The genes of our lizard species never stay the same during their lifetime. Genetic mutation happens due to several factors which include exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, industrial wastes, extreme climates, radiation from outer space etc. Once mutated, the new gene might carry a positive, negative or neutral trait. New positive traits may form such as improved skin color, stronger limbs, better digestive system and the like. Negative traits may include impaired vision, unwanted skin spots, weaker limbs and so on.

Image of genetic mutation example

In order to survive, the lizards must consume food, avoid predators and reproduce successfully. Positive traits are the ones that help these lizards survive better in this particular island and negative traits are the ones that make survival difficult. Hence, lizards with positive traits such as stronger limbs have better chance to run after preys and also to avoid being eaten by predators. Further, lizards with skin color more adapted to the surrounding sandy environment also helps camouflaging while it is hunting and also while it is being hunted. Since, the lizards with positive characteristics have better chance of survival, they are more likely to mate and reproduce. When male and female lizards mate, half of the chromosomes from the female combines with half the chromosomes from the male through chance recombination. Therefore, some of the positive traits from both the father and the mother are passed on to the offspring thereby making it fit to survive in the given environment.

However, though difficult, even lizards with negative characteristics may survive by either sheer luck or by other factors such as hunting of predators by other predators etc. In such a scenario even some of the lizards with negative characteristics might also mate and pass on their negative characteristics to the next generation. If the population survives for many generations, we can find that in every generation, the number of individuals with positive traits is more than the number of individuals with negative characteristics. We also find that certain type of traits such as a particular eye color or skin color or longer limbs etc. become marked trait of this species overtime with more individuals possessing them. In short, successful variations survive and others perish and as a population of species, it is important to have more number of individuals with positive traits reproduce. Thus, individuals would choose to mate more number of times with individuals possessing positive characteristics. This sort of “arms race” for dominance which ensures “survival of the fittest” and thereby survival of the species is called natural selection.

image of pacific rocky island

Now, let us say this process of genetic mutation and natural selection goes on for a thousand generations. We now have a species that is extremely adaptive to our sandy Pacific island and different from the parent species. We will call them “Species – A1“. Let us now assume that a few individuals such as a pregnant female or group of pregnant females manage to swim across the sea and arrive at an island that is miles away from our original sandy island. They could also arrive in other ways such as when predators that carry one or more of our lizards or lizard eggs accidentally drops or leaves them on this new island.

Let us assume this is a rocky island with plenty of water, plants and trees but lesser populations of insect and small creatures compared to the original island. The lizards who are used to eating insects, earthworms etc. from the sandy island will soon find that the new island is slightly inhospitable when compared to their “motherland”. They will also find that their softer bodies are not very suitable for the rough terrains of the rocky island. However, they have sufficient water supply, plants etc. The first generation to arrive might either perish totally or return to their homeland or somehow survive eating the little number of insects they have there.

image of pacific island fishes

If they choose to survive there, very soon the same process of genetic mutation and natural selection would ensue. This time our lizards need stronger and faster bodies to chase the insects in the tough terrains. They can continue to develop stronger and faster bodies to catch insects and survive for generations or they can switch to eating alternative food sources such as plants or small fishes in the water bodies inside and around the island. If they find plant eating is a good option to survive since they are there in plenty, the subsequent generations would eventually become totally vegetarians. If they choose to eat fishes, subsequent generations would develop traits such as improved streamlined bodies suitable for swimming, agility and alacrity in catching fishes etc. They might even become amphibious in due time by developing traits that would help them survive in water for longer periods of time.

After a few generations, say a thousand generations of genetic mutations and natural selections in the new island, our original lizard species A1 would have developed into a new species of lizards that have diverted in their physical structure, eating habits etc that helps them flourish in the new island. We can now call them “Species – B”. Now, our original Species A1 did not remain the same either in the sandy island. While A1 transformed to B in the rocky island over a thousand generations, A1 was undergoing the same in the original island. Now, after another thousand generations, we have “Species – A2” in the original island. If we take lizard species A2 and B, we find several similarities as well as differences in their body, color, size, overall fitness and even sounds they make. Sandy lizards would move in zig-zag motion which is better suited for sandy environments and the rocky lizards might move faster in straight line, which is suited for rocky environments.

However, both species A2 and B have a “common ancestor“, which is the species A1. Hence, we can say that A2 and B share “common ancestry“, which is the main topic of this article. Please note that common ancestor need not always be a single person. It can be a population of individuals who share similar traits.

image of beautiful galapagos crabs

When Darwin arrived at the Galapagos Islands in the pacific, he noticed marked differences and similarities in species of iguanas, tortoises, finches and so on in the different islands in the group. It caused him to think as to whether these species are cousins to each other. And that is what led him and Alfred Russel Wallace and many other biologists to study the process in the subsequent years and establish the theory of evolution by natural selection. This theory is currently the only explanation for the complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet. This theory has survived the test of time and is qualified as a scientific theory because it passes the four criteria I described in my previous article. Today we have enormous amounts of evidence to support the theory which include fossils remains, comparative study of homologous structures, molecular evidence such as ERV (Endogenous Retrovirus) infections in the DNA etc.

These are things I wrote directly from my head based on what I have read and studied. I hope I have accomplished the task of explaining evolution in simplified terms. Please let me know your comments and suggestions if any so that I can make this article better.

Evolution – What is in it for me?

image of phylogeny tree

Evolution is the slow process of change that occur in physical, chemical, biological, geological, social, linguistic and cosmological systems and the components within those systems over time. The theory of evolution, which is the subject of this article is obviously biological evolution and its far reaching implications pertaining to human life. How the knowledge of evolution affects a person’s everyday life is something unknown to common man and something that he doesn’t bother to know. It is a fact that the reason why human species exist and flourish in various parts of the world today lies primarily in the process of evolution and the human knowledge of the same.

Before I start with the main content of this article, I would like to describe what exactly is meant by a scientific theory. Any scientific theory must qualify the following four criteria:-

  1. It must explain an observable phenomenon and/or experimental result
  2. It must be substantiated with evidence obtained through experiments and/or observations and/or material evidence
  3. It must make testable predictions that can be verified by new observations and/or experiments and/or material evidence
  4. It must pass a rigorous peer-review process

Evolution is a theory that qualifies all the four criteria described above and provides an accurate explanation of the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. As a side note, I would also like to tell you that every scientific theory that qualifies the above four criteria still has its own realm of application. For instance, you can’t expect a scientist; no matter how gifted to explain why a sperm and egg fuse to form a zygote using the theory of gravity. That wouldn’t make sense since there are theories on sexual reproduction such as meiosis that give clear answers to questions pertaining to zygote formation. Similarly, you can’t expect someone to explain why objects fall using meiosis.

image of charles darwin

Hence, I don’t want to see comments asking, “Why doesn’t evolution explain the origin of life?” because evolution is not meant to explain it. There is another theory called abiogenesis that explains the various possibilities of origins of life on earth and possibly in other planets given the right conditions. Also I wouldn’t tolerate comments that defame Darwin and his contributions using contrived and misinformed information about his “deathbed conversion” and “rebuttal of his own theory because of missing links”. It is beyond doubt that Darwin was never converted in his deathbed and though he did accept that missing links existed, he never said that it is proof against evolution. In fact fossils of many of the missing links he postulated were later discovered and classified. Further, since 1859, the year when “On the Origin of Species” was published, there have been thousands of books written; hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed papers published and millions of pieces of evidence amassed in support of evolution.

So, having established that evolution is a fact and the theory of evolution explains this fact, let’s move on to the main topic of this article. I will discuss some areas where knowledge of evolution affects everyday life:

Medicine

Evolution’s biggest use for humans and one of my favorites is in the field of medicine. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that we are alive because of evolutionary theory. Evolution helps us predict the outcome of antibiotic overuse in both humans and livestock and mutation of pathogens such as in the cases of avian flu, west Nile virus etc. We could study parasites such as tubercle bacillus, plasmodium etc. and how they evolve and this knowledge helped in treating resurging and resistant diseases using drug cocktails such as the ones used in the treatment of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

image of mosquito evolutionary disease carrier

The recent outbreak of SARS and H1N1 show how vulnerable we are to pandemics created by evolved viruses. This combined with the fact that any infected person can reach anywhere in the world in a matter of hours cause the spread of any mutated virus more easy. Hence we must be aware of evolution of pathogens. HIV, a rapidly evolving retrovirus shares common ancestry with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). Hence we have new avenues of research into effective treatment of AIDS. Drug cocktails for HIV patients are creating remarkable success around the world. Further, the cocktails need switching so that the virus doesn’t adapt to a particular mix at any time. Only evolution gives insights into the right combinations of antibiotics.

Scientists are in the process of improving vaccines in the light of rapid evolution and antibiotic resistance of microbes so that people can stay resistant to diseases for longer periods of time. In times of scarcity of antibiotics and chemicals extracted from plants and microbes, it is easy to find related species and look for chemicals in them. Knowledge of evolution helps in finding related species. For example, the Pacific Yew tree used to generate Taxol, the drug used to fight cancer became endangered since 4 to 6 trees must be destroyed to produce one dose of Taxol. However, scientists used the common ancestry theory to find other common trees of the same family that contain Taxol-like compounds thereby helping cancer patients and saving lives.

Environmental Conservation

Understanding evolution of a particular gene pool helps biologists manage different species and their habitats. And if unfavorable conditions are located, endangered species of plants and animals can be relocated to more favorable habitats.

Agriculture and Biotechnology

Evolution helps in knowing the ecological adaptations of various crops and livestock which in turn helps farmers and researchers to introduce these crops and livestock in new environments. In addition it helps in understanding and implementing cross breeding. Further, it helps in artificially selecting the desired characteristics in crops and livestock. In biotechnology, the evolution of genes help in splicing beneficial genes between species which in turn help in producing disease resistant crops and the like.

Human Physiology and Behavior

The theory of evolution also helps us understand disorders such as autoimmune disorder, ADD etc. Understanding genes and their evolution provide new insights into hereditary diseases. Evolution also throws light into the various factors of human behavior such as existence of aggression and compassion.

Economics and Market Dynamics

Evolution also helps in market research where researchers can find out why certain products sell better than certain others. Economics changes in market systems, barter systems, forms of currency etc. are also studied in the light of evolutionary theory these days.

There are other fields that are totally unrelated to biology where evolution finds application. For example cosmology, geology, meteorology, oceanography, linguistics, sociology, politics, economics, theology and anthropology are some of the field where evolution plays an important role. However, this evolution is not biological evolution. In cosmology and astronomy, scientists study the origin and development of celestial bodies such as black holes and the changes in orbits of these bodies. Formation of land forms and plate tectonics and continental drifts form part of geological studies. In meteorology and oceanography, we have climate change, dynamics of ice ages, El Nino, La Nina, oscillation events etc. In linguistics, researchers study origins and development of languages. Sociology and politics also make use of evolution in studying social norms, customs, political systems etc. In anthropology, we use evolution to study the development and diversification of cultures. Finally theology also makes use of evolution in studying religious practices, beliefs and rise and fall of religions.

Teaching Evolution

The advantage that evolution offers students as a practical science to study life sciences as well as other related fields is profound. It is as important as other scientific theories such as quantum mechanics which describe the world around us. Hence, it is important to be taught in schools and colleges in both breadth and depth so that students who move into fields of biotechnology, agriculture, medicine, molecular biology and even geology and paleontology etc. can benefit in their future academics and research. The fact that our contemporary society has more number of scientists and consumers of science than ever before is in itself a good reason why knowledge of evolution and its education is important. Dieting, pharmacology, cloning, global warming, you name it and evolution plays a role there. Censoring evolution from school and college syllabus hence would eventually thwart progress in the fields mentioned. Thus it is imperative that people accept evolution and teach children about the same from a young age. The why part of science such as the flight of a bird, its songs, the resemblance of children to their parents, the similarities between species, the biochemical processes of eukaryotic cells etc. makes sense only in the light of evolutionary theory.

Conclusion

Evolution is the only scientific explanation of the history of life on earth and is also the only explanation that one can give for life elsewhere. There are no alternative theories to evolution! If someone says that there is, then that alternative theory must pass the four criteria I mentioned before. Any alternative theory that does not pass those criteria is not scientific and hence has no place in the academic or research world.

Bibliography