Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

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There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


The Blank Faith

March 25, 2008

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Barack Obama’s religious beliefs are a sort of blank slate. People from different backgrounds look at him and come to strikingly different conclusions.

There are, of course, the crazies who think Obama is a wicked Muslim Manchurian candidate. A friend of mine was recently giving a campus tour to a prospective student and the student’s parents. They walked by a TV in a lobby showing Fox News (of course) and happened to ask my friend who she was supporting. She replied that she was an Obama supporter, and the mom leaned in and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Well, don’t you think it’s possible, just possible that he’s a plant from Al Qaeda?”

So there are those people. (I’m certain the child will choose my school)

Then are the sincere, likable evangelical Christians who are turning away from the GOP in favor of Obama. They see his religious expressions as more genuine than the professions of prior Democratic candidates, and like his rhetoric that incorporates their religious heritage into policy directions they are generally in line with. They are passionately pro-life and generally against gay marriage, but they are coming to question the Iraq War (if they ever supported it), they see poverty and climate change as moral issues, and they’re more likely to feel compassion than fear when considering immigration.

When I was a freshman, my school’s College Democrats sold 15 t-shirts and counted that a milestone. By this year (five years later) the student Facebook group supporting Obama has 150+ students. I chock this up to a combination of disillusionment with Iraq, feelings of being used by the right-wing-machine, and Obama’s personal appeal and newish approach to religion (at least for a Democrat). The only Hillary supporters I know here are two faculty members and a student from Guyana.

And another friend of mine is a self-described “third-generation secular humanist,” and she sees Obama’s faith in a different light:

Me: “Frankly, I miss the days when the Republicans were the ones associating and apologizing for the nutty religious leaders, and you knew the Democrats were pleasantly secular with a window-trimming of gentle religion for political purposes.”

Her: “Actually, I think Obama is only socially religious and doesn’t really believe in God. I’ve read his books, but I think a lot of that’s political; you have to do that to run for office.”

To each their own?


Letter to a Christian Educator

July 6, 2007

Something special has come into my possession. A student who goes to a private, conservative, Christian school I’m familiar with got upset about some of his terrible liberal professors (all of whom are intelligent Christians who hold at least one position said student simply can’t fathom) and wrote a letter to the president of the university. For some unknown reason, the student then felt compelled to post the letter online for all to see (bragging about his conservative chutzpah, maybe?). Then he got cold feet and removed it… but Google cache is a cruel master and preserves such humorous nuggets in perpetuity. (Edited for brevity and anonymity, but the substance remains accurate.)

This is a copy of a letter I recently sent to [Christian U President] and some other [Christian U] big wigs…. I would encourage all of you to write a letter of your own on any of these issues that concern you. Feel free to copy and paste any of my letter to use in your personal grievance to the “powers that be.”

“Dr. [Christian U President]:
I am a current [Christian U] student and will be entering my junior year of college this fall. With that said, you should be aware that I have encouraged my classmates to also write with their similar concerns.

Oh, I’m sure the comments are a-flooding in.

Dr. [X]’s online journal is where most of his [Christian U]-hating is done… However, there several inappropriate displays outside of his office, in which he mocks [Christian U] and Conservatism. His comments in class have also been insubordinate and inappropriate.
This man is very clearly anti-[Christian U], anti-Conservative and, in my opinion, anti-American.
Regardless of your personal political views, regardless of the political values held by [Christian U]: this is an embarrassment to our school… What kind of message is being sent about [Christian U]?

Wait? A University can hold political values? It’s an embarrassment to have teachers who don’t all think and teach like zombies?

Many have yelled “freedom of speech” in defense of [X]’s comments, but I do not think his Constitutional rights can save him on this one. As you are aware, he is obligated to uphold the standards and principles held by [Christian U]: after having sat under his teaching, I am afraid he is failing miserably.

This student was probably either sleeping or fuming in anger that anyone could think differently, or think to judge America by the same standards as the rest of the world. In fact, I would say said professor’s views on politics flow more understandably from his faith than said student’s views. If I may speak for him, this professor sees himself as a Christian in an unjust world, and finds it as necessary to buck the trend of big “C” Conservatism when it doesn’t line up with his faith.

The day after learning of Dr. [X]’s outlandish comments…I was blown away by comments made in my Biology class. Dr. [Y], my teacher, told my class that there is overwhelming evidence that shows homosexuality is genetically inherited. After making this large, outlandish, sweeping statement, he proceeded to change subjects. I very politely raised my hand and asked if he would show us some of this “overwhelming evidence.” Dr. [Y] then responded, “If you want to add an extra week to this class, we might have time. Are you interested?” I politely responded, “No, I am not interested—I don’t believe it. I just think that’s a BIG statement to make and not show any evidence to back it up.” Dr. [Y]’s response was a simple “ok” and the discussion was over.

The unfortunate thing about general education science classes is that those who are incapable of understanding specific research (due to ignorance of science and unwillingness to consider arguments) are fed conclusions they will simply brush off as ideologically suspect, and the professors often do not have the time to discuss the evidence. This is sad because it misrepresents the process of science while maintaining its conclusions. That said, an extra week of class probably wouldn’t suffice to give this student the background needed to understand (and certainly not trust) such findings.

This is not my first conflict with the science department: in Spring 2006, Dr. [Z] presented the idea of the “Big Bang,” Evolution, and “Millions of years” to my Geology class. I should have written this letter then.

These concepts were likely introduced from the “here’s what most scientists think happened” perspective, not the “this is true” perspective. I should note that Dr. Z is what could be classified as an Old-Earth Creationist. I understand that he believes the Earth is billions of years old, that some species evolved and such, but that humans were a special creation. What’s the problem with that?

These occurrences, along with the showing of Al Gore’s propaganda film “An Inconvenient Truth” in the [auditorium] last semester, have led me to a place of discontent. While the spiritual mindset seems to grow more and more close-minded, the political tolerance on this campus is out of control! Why is it that the religion of environmentalism is promoted…?

Yes! Down with this Godless tolerance! Down with Godless environmentalism! Let us take the Creation and rape it to fulfill our own lust for wealth, oil, and dead Arabs! (Did I mention this student is pro-anything-military? Yeah).

I am not an administrator; I do not claim to know how to fix these problems. I only know that [Christian U] is not the same place it was 2 years ago when I stepped onto this campus. Attending this school has been a GREAT financial burden on me and my family, but it is a burden I have gladly carried—until this point. My parents have often encouraged me, saying, “We know [Christian U] is expensive, but it’s worth it. Public education is full of liberalism and corruption, but [Christian U] is an alternative.”

I wish I had a transcript of that conversation.

I’m not here to say that [Christian U] is corrupt; I simply feel shortchanged. I could receive a liberal, worldly education for one third of the cost at any public university. That is not, however, what I desire: I want to be educated by Christian brothers and sisters, in a Godly manner.

(I don’t see how any of the professors previously mentioned act in an ungodly manner, promoting things like free inquiry, science, evidence, etc.)

Please work to resolve these issues. Dr. [X] has gone unchecked for years—he needs to be controlled. As for Dr. [Y] and Dr. [Z], I’m sure they feel they can say anything “in the name of science,” but I think they are mistaken. There is a higher standard; there is a higher entity than science.

The last paragraph is really my favorite. It’s one thing to disagree with God’s politics (the Right-Wing side, not Jim Wallis’ book), but quite another to say things in the name of science. God forbid that we look at the evidence objectively and consider what it supports or does not support.

Welcome to conservatism.


Heteroflexuality

June 28, 2007

Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant posted this billboard from a Christian group:

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Of course, it’s an “ex-gay ministry”‘s you-can-change-being-gay billboard that’s been Photoshopped to make a rather hilarious point. And the church wasn’t happy with the comparison. That sparked some discussion on Hemant’s blog. Here’s an example of one of the comments:

That’s just not right. What’s worse is, they try to perpetuate that idea that homosexuals can change.

Well, I agree that it’s not right. But I think the discussion of whether people who identify as homosexuals at one point of their lives do so out of pure genetic determinism or pure personal choice is tainted by social norms; the politically-correct views of the accepting left and the it’s-really-hard-to-find-a-hermeneutic-to-get-out-of-this-one views on the Christian right. So, I wrote a rather long comment, and I didn’t want it to just get buried, so I gave it a nice new home here on my friendly blog:

I think it’s important to consider the issue of choosing sexual orientation. It’s very politically incorrect to say these days that (any) people choose their sexual orientation, but let’s talk this through. Hear me out please (no pun intended). First, no one has found a single gene that causes homosexuality in a simple Mendelian way (although many, like Dean Hamer, have tried). Much research needs to be done, but the most you can say is that there is a genetic predisposition. Having a predisposition for something–let’s say liking cheetos–is not synonymous with being “born that way.” However, there can also be a tremendous influence on a developing fetus from its chemical environment during pregnancy, and this is one very likely way in which a predisposition for one sexual orientation develops.

That said, there are most certainly a number of people whose predominant sexual orientation from birth is homosexual, with no desire for the opposite gender. A much larger proportion of a population is predominantly heterosexual, with no desire for the same gender. There does exist a group in the middle though–many of whom choose to identify as bisexuals–whose orientation is more fluid. What exactly influences these people to identify as homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual? You can bet that their personal developmental psychology plays a role, as well as social norms. Many of these ‘flexible’ people may choose to identify with a group that is not discriminated against (heterosexuals) due to outside pressure. I would bet this is where many of the “conversion” stories come from. A biologically informed opinion would include the factoid that many traits are determined by a complex interaction of genes, developmental environment (pre- and post-natal), social norms, and personal choices.

So, it’s important to recognize that sexuality, for a significant portion of the population, is much more fluid than many people would care to admit. So a Christian ministry can certainly hope to ‘convert’ some people (which is all the more reason to resist such “ministries” that cause people emotional harm). Quoting another comment:

I’m pretty sure he missed the real meaning, it’s not really that Asians don’t choose to be Asian, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with being Asian in the first place.

And that’s exactly what the response should be. It is much easier to respond “I was born this way,” but it’s simply not true for everyone. It’s harder to argue that “because the Bible says so doesn’t make it wrong,” but that seems to really be at the root of all this. Thoughts?


Defending Witchcraft

June 27, 2007

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Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, which I generally enjoyed (though I have some rather strong reservations about many specific arguments), has finally arisen to defend witchcraft against its skeptics. Sort of.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Harris paints a hilarious picture.. First, imagine that you live in a country, around 500 years ago, where ~95% of the people believe in witchcraft.

Imagine being among the tiny percentage of people — the 5 percent, or 10 percent at most — who think that a belief in witchcraft is nothing more than a malignant fantasy…You argue further that a belief in magic offers false hope of benefits that are best sought elsewhere… If your name is Sam Harris, you may produce two fatuous volumes entitled The End of Magic and Letter to a Wiccan Nation. Daniel Dennett would then grapple helplessly with the origins of sorcery in his aptly named, Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins — whose bias against witches, warlocks, and even alchemists has long been known — will follow these books with an arrogant screed entitled, The Witch Delusion.

So, what would the reviews from the witches and sorcerers look like? Harris takes a few reviews of his and other prominent atheists’ books and replaces key words: “God” with “the Devil,” “religion” with “witchcraft,” etc. One of the results:

“The danger is that the aggression and hostility to [magic] in all its forms… deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/[necromancy] debate. The durability and near universality of [witchcraft] is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking… Does [spell-casting] still have an important role in human wellbeing? … If [sorcery] declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?… I suspect the New [Skeptics] are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use [the evil eye] in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension… but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.” –Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian

(Via Friendly Atheist)


What if the Women of the Bible Had All Been Feminists?

June 26, 2007

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Lately I’ve been enjoying Amy Richards’ Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. I’ve been meaning to read something by Amy ever since I heard her speak this spring, and Manifesta hasn’t been letting me down. Amy is the brain behind the Ask Amy advice column at Feminist.com, and a long time proponent of equal rights and empowerment for women. As a male who has lately begun to come to grips with all the varieties of sexism and patriachy present in the conservative Southern town in which I was raised, Richards’ writing is truly a breath of fresh air.

While Manifesta does everything from summarize the history of feminism to describe what still needs to be done by the so-called Third-Wave of feminism and outline resources for community activism, it also has some hilarious moments. Since a healthy chunk of the examples of sexism I can recall from my upbringing involve religion, I particularly liked the section where Richards and Baumgardner (the coauthor) raise a question: “How would Biblical history have been different if the women had been feminists, and had gotten together for a good girl talk now and then?”

After the ladies loosen up around the table, Mary Magdalene would begin by talking about sex workers’ rights, and returning belly dancing to its origin as an exercise for giving birth. Leah and Rachel would resolve their longtime sisterly competition by ditching Jacob, the man their father married them both to, and agitate for women to be able to inherit their own property. Rather than being synonymous with evil, Jezebel would be lauded for her business acumen. Hagar would receive palimony and child support from her lover, Abraham. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, might even befriend Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and Sarah’s slave; at the very least, she would empathize. Bathsheba, tired of looking for love from a poetic boy who couldn’t commit, would have the presence of mind to leave King David. Delilah would teach them about orgasms and exhort her friends to make sure they got what they needed in bed. Lilith would be full of first wives’ club advice for Eve, and Eve would be pontificating about the politics of housework. Eve would also recognize that she had been framed, and refuse to take the Fall for her man or her God. Ruth wouldn’t be saying “Whither thou goest, I will go” to her mother-in-law or anyone anymore; she’d be blazing her own trails. Meanwhile, they’d all begin to question why the hell Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt when her husband was busy offering up their virgin daughters to the marauders. (And why the hell she didn’t have a name.)

Man, I wish I wrote that. I mean, woman


More Creation Museum Fun…

June 22, 2007

Tara Smith over at Aetiology has a nice fresh take on the Creation Museum. If you haven’t read about it already, please observe the biggest waste of $27 million ever spent by fundamentalists. Hint: I know some kids with AIDS who could use the money (remember Matthew 25 anyone?) so send it here instead…

And BlueGrassRoots has an excellent photo tour of the museum. It includes these great comparios of God’s Word vs. Human Reason (guess which one is BAD!):

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The Edge of Intelligent Design

June 13, 2007

I wrote a little about reviews of Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe’s new book, The Edge of Evolution, in Behe Does it Again. And then the other day I had the chance to sit down in a bookstore and read a good chunk of the book. The combination of my lack of support for what Behe is doing and my own academic-induced poverty led me not to buy the book.

Behe’s writing’s gone downhill. Gone are the well-worded explanations of biochemical mechanisms. Edge seems to be written in a quicker, outline sort of format with lots of little headlines and even less mass under each heading than with Darwin’s Black Box, his previous book.

Having just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, it’s really interesting to contrast his heavily detailed, frequently-exampled work with Behe’s, which relies on a very few examples to make a point. Jerry Coyne, writing in The New Republic, has an excellent review of The Edge of Evolution (reposted here) which suggests the title of this post and also has a nice introduction to evolutionary biology, if you need it.

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