The problem with describing organisms as “higher” or “lower”

In my most recent publication, I was not happy with the use of the terms “higher” and “lower” when referring to various organisms but, despite my objections during draft editing, they were retained. However, I want to take this opportunity to state that these terms are the remnants of outdated beliefs, can lead to a poor understanding of biology and do not belong in scientific text. This issue has been addressed in blogs, online fora and the scientific literature (see references at the end).

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Scientific literacy in South Africa

General science education in South Africa is in a terrible state. Recently, a survey was conducted among 1000 South Africans. They were asked 10 true or false questions about general science and, as Rapport reports (The article is in Afrikaans because the English versions only report on that article and are pathetic in comparison), the average South African only got five answers correct. These same questions were also asked in the United States where the average person got 6,5 questions correct. Since there is a lot of confusion over these questions I would like go through them, share the correct answer and briefly expand on it. Continue reading

Why can’t atheists leave the religious alone?

Often you see the question come up, usually by a religious believer, of why atheists challenge other people’s beliefs. Shouldn’t we all be tolerant and just leave each other alone? I think you’ll find most atheists would be fairly happy with that state of affairs (it’s called secularism). That’s not to say they will be completely satisfied but at that point, where religion becomes a private matter, there will probably be far fewer clashes. I would still think they are wrong but I also think they should be free to believe what they will. Why, then, aren’t we at that point? Simply put it’s because religion is still so ingrained in society and shown such deference that it’s impossible to get away from it. It’s so tightly woven into society that at times it’s probably not even noticed. Continue reading

Videos: Something serious and something fun

I’m really having trouble getting back into writing. In the meanwhile I’ll share two short clips to keep people entertained.

The first one is educational, but with cute animations, and explains what evolution is.

For second one we shoot way off the obscure side of entertainment for the fourth episode of Charlie the Unicorn. It’s not my favourite Charlie but it’s still entertaining.

Enjoy.

Quick links: Dawkins, religious freedom, blasphemy

It’s been a bit too long since I last posted but I just haven’t been finding time to write, today for example my Japanese started again and I never got around to all the revision I wanted to do. I do have some posts in mind but they take some time to write so to prevent this blog from stagnating I’m posting a few links to some things that you might find interesting.

First up there’s an interview with Richard Dawkins over in Playboy. It’s not the usual place you go for interviews with a well-known scientist and atheist but it does quite a good job.

Then just when I was finishing my post on religious freedom I came upon a similar piece written by Peter Singer. I’ve heard a lot about him but I haven’t seen any of his books in the shops.

Lastly I’ll share a piece about the effects of blasphemy laws. An 11-year-old girl from Pakistan could face the death penalty for supposedly burning a Qur’an. You can read the story by The Guardian or ABC News (on Yahoo!).

Children to be taught fact or faith?

The story of a South African science teacher getting reprimanded for teaching science, specifically evolution, has cause quite a stir. Apart from the many comments and related posts on News24 it was even noticed over in America. Naturally, it wound up in a local community paper, giving the views of various locals, where they asked whether schools should teach fact or faith. If you’re ever asking whether you should or shouldn’t teach facts then you’re probably in a lot of trouble. Continue reading

Valentine’s day and free speech

Today is Valentine’s day. For many people it is a day to revel in the love one shares with another, regardless of race or gender. However it is also the day that a death threat was publicly issued. This death threat has been acted on yet the person responsible for it was never arrested. Today is the 23rd anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the death of novelist Salman Rushdie for writing the novel The Satanic Verses.

One might be tempted to think that after 23 years, and the death of Khomeni, that Rushdie can now live safely. One would be wrong. Just this year Salman Rushdie was intending to appear in India for the Jaipur Literary Festival. His trip was cancelled at the last minute as word came through that there would be an attempt to assassinate him and he felt that it would be irresponsible to put anyone else at risk. Furthermore, he wasn’t even allowed to speak via teleconferencing. Continue reading

UN fails to protect free speech

The UN has adopted resolution 16/18, effectively abandoning free speech, the most vital of all human rights. At first glance the resolution appears to be decent with the intention to combat “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.” The problem mainly stems from the last end of that list, combating “incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief,” especially when you consider that the source of the resolution is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The OIC is meant to represent the Muslim world, a world whose goals have almost consistently run contrary to human rights and who has a history of violence against critics. It will be fine to restrict speech that explicitly calls for violence against a group of people but you cannot restrict speech because someone might react violently to what is said. This is a particular problem with the Islamic world where even the most innocuous statements, even in non-Muslim countries can lead to violent retaliations from the Muslim community. Continue reading