Huckabee Revolution

The Associated Press/February 6, 2008
Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee’s recent primary victories across the South have brought new focus to the long-simmering debate between science and religion.  The former Baptist preacher’s public and popular rejection of evolutionary science has underscored the success of religion in refuting science’s claim to a defining role in the progress of civilization.  That success is being echoed across the nation.
     The New York Times reported just last week that the aerospace research center at Boeing, the giant aircraft manufacturer, has replaced the wing design team on the Boeing 787 with theology PhDs.  The move was a direct response to criticism that the new generation of jet engines had become wholly dependent on scientific principle to the exclusion of more faith-based ideas.  Said one executive, “For far too long, we have allowed aerodynamics alone to dictate the parameters of aircraft development.  We believe that turning the design of these wings over to the preachers recognizes the essential and necessary partnership between science and religion.”
      There are changes afoot also in the pharmaceutical industry.  Eli Lilly is poised to announce a major restructuring of its research and development program.  According to the press release: “The company’s dependence on the science of biochemistry has been under review for quite some time.  We feel that the time has come to emphasize the role of revelation in the development of life-saving drugs.”  Joel Osteen, the well-known tele-evangelist, has agreed to serve as acting head of R&D, promising to replace Lilly’s costly research facilities with a “Laboratory of the Soul.”  Separately, Lilly’s shares closed higher yesterday on news that fellow evangelical, Pat Robertson, had agreed to appear in Lilly’s new “A Little Piece of Heaven” ad campaign promoting Cialis, its erectile dysfunction medication.
      At the same time, the chairman of a major medical school accreditation association announced sweeping changes in medical school curriculum.  Under the new system, the association will drop anatomy and organic chemistry in favor of updated course offerings such as “The Saints and their Miracles; an alternative view for the medical practitioner”.  Likewise, the onerous routine of medical residency may be replaced by a structured program of bedside prayer vigils.  Said a spokesman: “Frankly, we looked at the Afghan model and found that we had a lot to learn.”
      Finally, Microsoft, the software giant, is instituting its own changes.   The company has launched a new initiative to phase out the old binary algorithms in its next generation OS, and replace them with a more scriptural logic. The decision, however, may reflect more pragmatism than faith.  Bill Gates, speaking at a recent conference in San Diego, surprised the audience with his criticism of the often quirky Windows operating system.  “We’ve spent billions trying to make that suckerfish work”, he said, “an appeal to the Almighty is about the only thing left.”

Hip-Hop Summit

 April 20, 2008.     

     With a wife and kids and work to do, I miss most of the seminal cultural events of our times.  One is happening this weekend.  In Philadelphia, Temple University is hosting the Turn Up the Vote National Hip Hop Summit.  It’s sponsored by something called the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (in cooperation with various departments of probation and parole).

     Technical problems plagued Friday’s opening ceremony, when the metal detectors short-circuited.  When power was restored, the sponsors made a quick rule change.  Only fully automatic firearms would be checked at the door.  Knives, needles and crackpipes were permitted.

      At the top of the list of speakers is Clifford Harris, Jr., an Atlanta rapper known as “T. I.”  T. I. boasts an impressive curriculum vitae, recently polished with pleas to three firearms violations.  Barred from voting as a convicted felon, T. I. is reaching out to wannabe rappers to share what it means to lose this precious right.

      Reporters caught up with T. I. at a strip club in the city’s Combat Zone.  “I’m here to share the importance of getting out the vote”, he stated – as he slipped a few bills into the thong of a lapdancer.  According to Harris, the rap community wants to devote a full third of their probationary community service hours to making violent young sociopaths aware that they too have a voice.  “This is my way of giving back”, he remarked, as he and the lapdancer tossed back a couple of shooters.

      Asked about his previous voting experience, T. I. laughed.  “Well, I ain’t never been in no voting booth, but that don’t mean I don’t get my vote”, as he patted a sinister bulge under his jacket.  “And when I vote, dis m___ f___ be da majority.”

      When discussing his preferences among the candidates, T. I. immediately became serious and passionate.  “Kanye thinks he be the top dog”, he spluttered.  “The Snoop Dogg, he got ripped off.  Them Grammys ain’t worth nothin’.  You wait, though, T. I.’s on a comeback.  I’m goin’ platinum with my new download, ‘Talkin’ wit’ my Glock’.  Now that be a lean mean votin’ machine.” 

      As the rapper settled in for another lap dance, a reporter called out, “the name ‘T. I.’, where’d that come from?”  “Beats me” the rapper responded.  “If your mama named you ‘Clifford’, would you be asking questions?”

Evolution and Design

April 28, 2008
Dear Reverend,

     Your recent article concerning evolution was thoughtful and well-written but, to my mind, begs for a rebuttal on a number of points. 
     As we all know, Charles Darwin, the author of what we call “evolution”, wrote the Origin of the Species to explain the variety of life on our planet.  He concluded, based on years of thought and observation, that the dynamic at work was “natural selection” – or the ability of successful species to change and adapt to their environment.  Prior to that time we really didn’t understand the diversity of nature.  It was nice to think that God simply made the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea.  But to many that explanation fell short.  Although he did not understand the mechanism, Darwin did recognize the “random” character of adaptation, and it did trouble him a great deal from a spiritual perspective.   
     Although man’s curiousity about the world stretches back to the earliest times, scientific advance has not been steady.  Greek and Roman civilizations made strides toward turning mystery into knowledge and reason.  The Fall of Rome, however, turned the clock back, and we entered 1000 years of tyranny that demanded that all thought conform to religious doctrine.  It is not accidental that during the Dark Ages little progress was made in bettering the lot of human beings.  It is also not accidental that such things as steam engines, electricity and penicillin came along only after reason broke free of religious authoritarianism.
     As much as I admire your convictions and your obvious good intentions, many of us regard “intelligent design” as proof that the Dark Ages are not completely behind us.  We look at Islamic fundamentalists, for example, and see that religious absolutism remains alive and well.  We believe that the future of society requires that we protect the distinction between scientific knowledge and religious belief.  There is room for both, many believe, but the two categories are essentially different.  We fear that intelligent-designers have lost that message. 
     My strongest criticism concerns the fallacy that evolution and design are merely competing theories.  I believe this fallacy is particularly dangerous, first, because intelligent fellows like you should know better, but second, because it intentionally wraps its arguments in the jargon of science to mislead us into thinking that the two notions are comparable. 
     They are not.  Evolution is, in fact, a remarkably sophisticated, comprehensive and detailed theory that explains phenomenon from the mammalian characteristics of the great whales to the behavior of anti-oxidant enzymes.  From the psychology of the human brain to the genetic clocks built into the mitochondria of each human cell, evolution opens a panorama of understanding of the world around us. 
     Design, on the other hand, to put it plainly, explains exactly nothing.  It points to the “failures” of evolution, and does a victory lap.  Although you raise the strawman of the Scientific Method (and then decline to do much with him), I believe that you actually misconceive how science works.  When, in your view, evolution “fails” to explain this or that, you conclude that design is vindicated.  This is nonsense.  Most scientific experiments fail.  Indeed, many scientific discoveries arise from the most interesting failures.  The fact is that the physical world is deeply complex.  We don’t understand lots of it.  That we don’t, and that we frequently bump into a wall trying, does not prove design, but underscores how difficult real science is.                                                                                                                                You refer to the “monopoly” of The Theory of Evolution, as if it were a crime family bossing the scientific waterfront.  One might as persuasively include the monopoly of the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Electromagnetism.  I believe, with all due respect, that you are missing an important point.  If a young biologist were to stumble over proof that evolution was in fact erroneous, akin to Einstein’s historic de-bunking of the theory of the “ether”, this person would, like Einstein, find himself not a pariah, but rather a hero.  Science, as the pursuit of flawed human beings, may not be perfect, but neither are we living in North Korea.  A discovery that refuted evolution – and we are not speaking of some crack-brain, pseudo-science – but a real discovery, would rock the foundations of science, just as did the theories of Newton and Einstein, and spawn a generation of celebrated professorships.  To misunderstand this betrays a profound blindness about the world we live in – and about the real integrity of science.
     You complain also, if I understand you, that supporters of evolution are somehow picking on the design supporters, even violating their civil rights (the great bogeyman of the Modern Age).  I cannot see that point either.  Science cares no more about design than the quarterback cares about the fat guy shouting at him from the stands.  He has work to do.  All that supporters of evolution are saying is that if you don’t subscribe to science, you don’t get a seat at the scientific table.  Science can be ruthless and will not tolerate cranks.
      Of course, Evolution may explain a lot, but it does not explain everything.  Life is too rich and complex.  “Evolution” itself has undergone substantial change.  We have traveled from the early notion of “survival of the fittest” to a theory of steady mutational change, to the prevailing idea of environment-driven “punctuated equilibrium”.  Notably, design suffers no such growing pains.  The proponents of design simply sit on the sidelines and heckle.  They are not, to make a point of it, scientists.  In fact, they are quite the opposite.  They are anti-scientists who are unhappy, as was the Roman Church with Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus and the hundreds of others who challenged the existing power structure.  The proponents of design are simply threatened by evolution.  And I can’t say I blame them. 
      Religious faith in the Age of Science is difficult.  The cold, random character of evolution, man’s unmistakable descent from earlier primates, the vast antiquity of the Earth, the incomprehensible size of the universe, the baffling and bizarre behavior of matter at the quantum level, and other progeny of science unsettle our faith.  It unsettles mine.  But finding faith and morality in the modern world – the real world – is the challenge, isn’t it?  Denying evolution, and cobbling up some hollow and jejune substitute, is beneath both of us.

Postcard from Boston Garden


     It’s good to go home from time to time.  Especially in the winter.  There’s nothing like a few days of February in Massachusetts to remind you why you left.  It’s 13 degrees.  I was going to say ‘above zero’, but at that temperature what difference does it really make.  When I went jogging yesterday a frigid gust swept up the street, slowing me almost to a stop.  Through layers of clothing it chilled me right to the skin.  �
      It’s been snowing forever this season. There’s two feet on the ground, plowed into peaks and ridges on street corners and in parking lots.  Snow is like a rock star.  Great when its young – but it doesn’t age well.  It’s only been a couple of weeks, but it already has a Keith Richards kind of look to it.  It’s mottled, speckled, past its prime.  When the sun is out, the glare is blinding.  Winter is a challenge here.�
     Wheeler and I arrived Wednesday night.  We had tickets to see the Celtics in the Boston Garden – though that’s not what they call it anymore.  In what has become a commonplace act of prostration before the whore goddess of ‘branding’ the place is now called TDGarden.  I don’t know what a TD is.  I’m hoping  it’s not a boner pill.  But I was raised here so for me it’s Boston Garden, or just the ‘Garden’.  Yet I got a head’s up on that too.  I pulled up to the toll-booth in the Sumner Tunnel.  “Afternoon” I said.  “Hiyowahya”, the guy responded, in his native tongue. “Am I heading toward the Garden?”  He looked at me.  “You mean, the GAH-den?”  I stand corrected.  It is, in fact, and always will be, the Gahden.
     Alas, in truth, Boston Garden is gone.  The Celts played there from 1928 until 1995, when it closed and they moved next door to the Fleet Center.  Had to happen I suppose.  The old building didn’t even have air-conditioning.  Although the four walls are new, the spirit lives in the avatar of the Floor.  The new Garden, even with all the hi-tech screens and graphics, has the feel of a shrine when you walk through the portal and gaze down on Red Auerbach’s old parquet floor, built from scraps in the 40s, and transplanted here from the old building.  The Leprechaun still grins at mid-court as he has for decades.  In the rafters overhead are the championship flags – ten alone from ’59 to ’69.  And the jerseys.  Auerbach, Cousey, Havlicek, Larry Bird.
     In Boston sports is more than entertainment.  Boston is an ethnic city.  They live in neighborhoods that are Irish, Italian, black.  The Red Sox, Celtics, and the Bruins hockey team are part of the tribal identity. They’re crazy about these teams.  We saw the Celts play – and beat – the New Jersey Nets.  When the Celts re-took the lead in the 4th Quarter the crowd was riotous.  And this is Wednesday night – playing the Nets.  �
     I’ve been gone from Massachusetts for decades but I’m still a fan.  I actually have a brother who doesn’t like the Celts.  Of all the loathsome apostasies, he roots for the Lakers.  I hold it against him – in a small way.  I can’t understand it.  An ancient team, an historic pageant of accomplishment – and he prefers the Lakers?  And while we’re on it, what is a Laker, anyway?  There aren’t any lakes in LA that I’ve ever heard of, and if there was one, you wouldn’t let a dog swim in it.
      The occasion for the trip is my father’s birthday.  He’s 82.  He’s doing pretty well.  Although you have to watch him carefully to detect that he’s doing anything at all.  He watches a lot of TV, takes walks and rides around town.   But the house looks good (except for the snow), and he’s healthy.  I think he’s reached a plateau where boredom is accepted as the blessing of few problems.
     Like a lot of old people, he tells the same stories over and over.  Yet he seems to enjoy the latest telling as much as the first.  It is hard to say whether he really doesn’t know he’s telling me for the tenth time that his divorcee neighbor is sleeping with a Brazilian or that the father of a childhood friend of mine, who used to live a few houses down, was all those years a raving manic-depressive – or whether he in fact enjoys some secret dispensation of old age that disdains the conversational etiquette of the young.�
     Whenever you spend a few days with my father, you become a captive of sorts.  This season he is inexplicably enthused about old musicals.  For much of the time that we congregated in his den, he had on some DVD narrating the fabled era of MGM musicals.  I watched Gene Kelly perform Singing in the Rain probably five times.  He can become pedantic about it.  He stops me in mid-conversation to ask who was Gene Kelly’s favorite dance partner?  No, he prompts me, it wasn’t Cyd Charisse.  Alright, I give up.  Its Fred Astaire, he informs me.  I don’t know where this is coming from.   I didn’t think he even liked movies.  We couldn’t get him in the car to see the King’s Speech.  Yet here he is holding a seminar on Gene Kelly.  I guess it could be worse.  We could be watching My Cousin Vinny.
     The culmination of the weekend was dinner at an old restaurant the family used to frequent when we were young.  It’s an hour away.  He’s letting me drive.  This is new.  He has an immaculate Lexus that he washes, oh, about every single day.  He has a season ticket to the car wash, and no matter what he paid, it was a bad deal for the car wash.�
      But tonight he’s OK with my driving.  I think this is a good sign.  He’s letting go a little, learning to play better with others.  I too am learning to be a little nicer.  In years past when he was a passenger, I would drive up quickly on the cars in front, just to watch his right foot thumping the floor board.  I’ve quit doing that – mostly.�
      There is a big family gathering at the restaurant, nieces, nephews, and a proliferation of new spouses and girlfriends.  I have no recollection of this place at all.  It makes me uneasy that my youngest brother speaks so fondly of it.  How much of my childhood have I simply repressed?  The conversation is lively.  The menage of aunts and uncles growing ancient, brothers growing a touch gray, a newly married niece, my brother’s four little children – the intersection of these souls around a long table makes for a pleasant evening. The mid-winter night, just outside the window, is howling cold.  The food, a buffet of some sort, looks like it’s been sitting under a heat-lamp for a week, yet life really couldn’t be better.  And the last I checked, the Celts are still on top.