Animal Altruism

Altruism. Is it something special? Is it something unnatural, or supernatural? Or is it common and explainable by scientific thought? As one would probably surmise from the title of this blog and that of the group I represent here, I would support the latter claim. Altruistic behavior is consistent with biological thought and quite common.

In thinking about altruism, we should define altruistic behaviors. An altruistic behavior is one that benefits a given individual or individuals at a cost to the acting individual.

Also important to understand is fitness in terms of indirect and direct fitness. These, respectively, are measured in relative’s offspring produced (at a factor of relatedness, which decreases with farther away family ties) and the acting individual’s offspring produced, which are always (in sexual organisms) related to the actor at 1/2.



Now, what sort of situation could arise in which an organism would sacrifice its direct fitness for indirect fitness? An easy example to understand is that of older women in human populations who have ceased to reproduce and help their children raise young instead. This could be vastly more beneficial to the acting individual in that they could gain more related individuals (of a halved relatedness, in the case of no inbreeding) by making their children able to maintain a larger family group. Perhaps they would be able to produce a singular offspring whereas their existing children could have 5 to 8 offspring. In addition in this case, reproduction by older females is dangerous and could result in damage to the female or in damaged offspring. Her daughters, however, could likely be more virile and able to bear the burdens of reproduction.

Consider another situation. A nesting bird can reproduce in its first year of fertility, without developed skills in raising young. Alternatively, it can help its parents raise a next brood of siblings, and better learn skills required to raise young of its own. It is worth noting that caring for a clutch in one’s first year of mating capability will indeed result in having an extra clutch advantage over those who wait. However, the cost to the individual spans throughout its lifetime, as the hardships of the first year clutch lower its later success rate and result in smaller clutch sizes throughout life.

prairie dog

Behaviors like this are common in animals, and one can see how increased production of individuals carrying a gene or set which would encourage these behaviors would propagate faster than one which does not, as it would spread through more and more indirect relatives and offspring. Consider signalling in prairie dogs, which put’s the warn-er at risk but lowers risk of a predator to the others. This has been observed to be more common when a prairie dog is around her daughters or mother than around strangers, which would support the indirect behavior benefit idea.

If altruism is something supernatural and unexplainable, why then is it so easy to understand and explain in real world terms? Is there any reason our ultimate survivor-ship is insufficient to explain behaviors many would describe as ‘good’ or even ‘moral’?

Speaking of morals, I do not believe that there is any moral belief that can not be explained by empathy. Yes, simply empathy. If you are turned off by the science I have presented so far, perhaps consider my simpler opinion. Why shouldn’t one kill another?

Besides the easy reasons like ‘I could get in trouble and be jailed’ or ‘I really don’t want to wash more bloodstains out of my work shirt’ there is also the idea that you wouldn’t kill because you wouldn’t want to be killed. Try thinking about the family of the murdered and what they would think and feel. Understanding the repercussions of one’s actions and feeling empathy towards others could dissuade a person from an act like homicide. It does not need to be a written rule for most people to not kill other people, so long as their empathy is intact.

Is God Dead? Propaganda with Popcorn!

The smell of overly buttered and under-salted popcorn, the excitement as some people go to see films on artificial intelligence and super heroes, the somewhat squeaky movie seats and awkwardly placed armrests . . . ah, ’tis the theater. Earlier tonight I attended a showing of “God is not Dead” with another member of the club. Besides being possibly the first movie ever written entirely based on an internet thread of a made up story, it also had cliché script and entirely unbelievable characters (as well as un-believing character… get it?)

The premise of the film is there is a crotchety atheist professor of philosophy who makes it his personal duty to see to the non-belief of all of his students in deities (though, really, he only ever attacked singular deities of Monotheistic religions. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess this is due to the Christian theme). Early in the film, a list containing the names of a few philosophers is brought up. From then on, the philosophy is reminiscent of that of Jaden Smith. In other words, no philosophy whatsoever.

god dead meme

In addition to the regular atheist hate which I expected, there was also a disturbing amount of bashing of Muslims. Spoiler Alert! When a Christian female character from a traditional Muslim family is found out, her father beats her severely while her little brother looks on and throws her out of the house. Fortunately, she experienced no bruising from the brutal slaps to the face, and was able to fall off her bed, traverse backwards through a straight bathroom while defending Jesus, and end up back in the same room on the far side of the bed.
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive in this aspect, but the girl also looked strikingly less ‘foreign,’ for lack of a better term, than her actively Muslim family. Considering the portrayal of the latter, this is reminiscent of the complaints I’ve heard about Aladdin, and the difference in appearance of the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

Carrying on with the serious note, this film is rife with poor definitions, a poor representation of the actual debates which occur between theists and atheists, and some terrible misrepresentations of science and the evidence known to us.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down the exact definitions from the script which the “Professor” uses in his class. However, for standard definitions see the about page extension, “Quick Facts”.

My specialty, though, is science, so these issues struck me most of all. The main Christian character, Josh Wheaton (sounds like Joss Whedon to me), describes a quote from Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design as circular logic. This entirely ignores that there is scientific support for the claim.

  • “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

The movie focuses on the first sentence. The problem arises when we realize that this is not circular logic due to there being supporting evidence. If there were an extensive discussion of laws of gravity, the shape of the universe, essential instabilities, and so forth before the quote, it would be a simple conclusion to the presented evidence. However, the film entirely ignores the existence of actual empirical evidence and thus avoids discussion of science as well as philosophy.

In response to the terrible attempt to debunk inorganic origins of life while appealing to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life), I have a few comments. The following is the only mention of the origin of life in Darwin’s Origin of Species. 

  • “Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some primordial form, into which life was first breathed”

Why doesn’t he discuss this important question more? Well, because Origin is not about the Origin of Life, it is about speciation. It is about a mechanism of gradual change, natural selection. It is entirely true that natural selection does not occur until there is something to work on. It is also true that natural selection only gets to work on genotypes by way of phenotypes, something you will never see Darwin discuss as the New Synthesis came around after his work. One cannot say that natural selection doesn’t work because we as scientists are willing to admit we do not know every detail of the world, including the exact way organic matter started to organize in a construct we would call alive. This is like saying “trains can’t run” because “how did the tracks get there?” or “no one picks what movies to watch because you don’t know the director, actors, set and location, budget, and producers which brought about the films”. In short, natural selection has absolutely nothing to do with the origin of life, it only starts after we have competition. If you’re interested in the basic requirements for natural selection, here you go:

natural selection

1. More organisms are produced than can reproduce
2. Resources are limited
3. Heritable traits exist in populations, some of which are better for survival than others

Another common misconception, natural selection is not ‘survival of the fittest’ (a term Charles Darwin did NOT coin), it is more like ‘survival of the good enough.’ Those good enough to mate get to have their genetic lineage continue. One could think of this in that it is not enough just to survive to puberty, one must also find a mate. Or one could consider that the sketchy traits can sneak through. You can probably think of quite a few people in sexual relationships you would not consider reproducing with.

Another Spoiler Alert! Silly silly silly ending. The atheist professor has a death-bed conversion after a hit and run car crash whilst trying to find his ex-girlfriend. This is cheesy enough, but it was even worse when his tragic death was celebrated (super spoiler, it’s actually a concert movie). Everyone is happy, a reverend diagnosed the medical problems the dying man was suffering from, God started a car for the reverends and dried their hair between scenes, and all the while a man has just died. I do not know a single person who claims to be atheist because they are “angry with God”. This is an assumption theists make all the time, and one that apparently leads not just to misunderstanding and hatred but also to poor filmography.

Richard Dawkins, New Management, and AAS 2014!

Hello! If you’re a follower of this blog or here for the very first time, you may notice there’s been little activity for quite some time. Well, this blog is now under new management, so I’ll be keeping you up to date on all the fun Secular things happening in and around Ames, Iowa, where our club is located. Also being rebooted is our twitter page, so feel free to follow us there if you’re a tweeter.

Our most recent event has been the final discussion meeting of Spring 2014, where we held elections and discussed our plans going forward as a club, including mobilizing our online presence and getting back into business with events and activities.

Recently, though, we had the wonderful experience of attending  “A Conversation with Richard Dawkins” with Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, an event hosted by SecularityUSA, an exciting up and coming movement in Iowa for a more Secular Government for the United States of America.


Your New Admin during Q&A with Dr. Richard Dawkins, April 12

As previously mentioned, our meeting tonight was the last for this semester, but we’ll be having Ask and Atheist on Friday in front of Park’s Library on Iowa State’s campus from 11am-2pm. This will be our last event for the semester, but look forward to a great Fall 2014, we’ve got many plans in store.

How to Protect Yourself from Evil- An Alpha Perspective

Today’s topic was “How Can I Resist Evil” at the Hope Lutheran Church’s Alpha class.  This was supposed to explain to us what it meant to recognize evil and how to best counter this evil when we come across it.  I’ll go into some of the explanations of evil (Satan) and what it is we are supposed to do with that evil.

Well first off she started the sermon with a logical “proof” that was apparently self-evidently true.  “If there is an absolute good, then there logically has to be an absolute evil” and that is why we must accept that there is an evil “force” out there that is out to get us.  The problem with this is obvious first off, this only applies if you believe in an infinite good in the first place and there is no maxim that says there must be an absolute evil as an entity. As darkness is absence of light, evil could be the absence of good in this example; and it certainly isn’t sentient.  However, she labeled this evil as Satan as laid out in the bible and went through pains to show that god was “perfect” and Satan was created from god; therefore Satan is less than god and is not as powerful.  She reiterated this time and again most likely in case someone asked the obvious question: “if god is all powerful why does he suffer Satan or evil?” Well that question still stands, but we’ll get to some of the most grievous contradictions later, but for now we are supposed to understand that Satan is powerful, but not ALL powerful.  It’s “Common sense” as she says that Satan has to exist in this fashion.  Problem here is of course, we all accept that “Evil” or “Bad” exists….but not everyone attributes a sentience to that evil. That’s……weird.

But god made Satan.

Anyways, Satan is leading demons and is fighting a spiritual war against the forces of heaven. We poor hapless humans are caught in the cross fire and have to do what we can to defeat the demons. I know you’re probably thinking this is all figurative, but it doesn’t seem so. There are actually demons out there, they are actually cast out of people, and they are actively here to harm you and me. This is interesting stuff if we’re supposed to rely on evidence and be critical thinkers concerning the bible.

Evidence I ask? Well she’s got it in spades! The bible is our evidence for Satan, so we can easily prove the bible correct by using the bible.  No problems there. The other piece is its tradition. All Christian teachings throughout the ages have had some sort of devil figure either in literature or art that showcased the battle against evil.  If Christian theologian’s and writers believed in Satan during the Middle Ages and before, then obviously it must be true. Another bit was that not everyone believed in demons back during 1st century Palestine.  She mentioned a ruling class that didn’t believe in the dogma of the religion, but ran the churches for profit. She reviled them as “Fakers” and since they didn’t’ believe in the devil (or god) then obviously Satan was winning over them. Evidence for this is in the bible which can readily be fact checked with the bible.  Really, this is the other piece of evidence, discounting that other more coherent and older religions have claims just as similar or different as you can imagine.  This one Christian doctrine is the True One.

Moving on to more relevant sources of evil, she mentioned that demons and Satan are constantly in action all around us! She used the example of the copying machines in the church.  Whenever an important outreach event is about to happen there always seems to be a problem with the copying machines.  There is no way it is a coincidence since it always happens whenever the church has need of them.  It’s not as if the additional use and constant attention have anything to do with jam-prone machines in the first place, no! It’s demons and/or Satan.  A Christian radio station wouldn’t show up in a woman’s car, as it kept fading out to icky talk radio. Again, Satan at work, trying to turn this woman away from god! Pornography shows up on a church members’ computer that he knows he never viewed (It was later found out to be a computer virus). SATAN put that virus there! You get the picture-anything that we don’t want to happen is Satan, anything we DO want to happen is god. Very, very flimsy stuff.

Now we move on to another part that I especially had to snicker at.  She warned against people turning away from god in a search for more power via the occult.  She mentions astrology, sorcery, witchcraft, wiccans; these are all forms of Satan that seek to take power away from god and into human (Satans!) hands via super natural methods.  She particularly pointed to astrology and Wicca as a very harmful thing and how it was a disgrace that so many young women in particular were turning to Wicca and that right here in Des Moines (!) there were these groups going on! She marked them all as evil and said those of us who may or may not have looked at the horoscope/astrology/Wicca/sorcery/etc. should pray for forgiveness. ?  I’d hate to know what she thinks of Harry Potter or World of Warcraft.

One example she gave was of a bright young woman who claims to be a “witch” and wanted to cast spells to help people.  She thought that it was so sad that this girl was so bright, yet was leading down a path of evil. I mean, we all know how fickle young girls are and they may be trying to do something “Good” and may do something bad with their spells! They should certainly stay away from this kind of thing, because sorcery in the hands of a young person is dangerous.  One question I wish I could have asked the pastor: How is that any different than prayer? If a young girl wielding sorcerous powers is so dangerous since she’s wont to use her powers for evil, how is that any different than praying to god for a boy to like her, or a Facebook post to be erased? It’s the same thing, just not the pastor’s flavor.  I don’t know what is more troubling the fact that this pastor thinks astrology and sorcery are a threat to her church as real things or that she can’t tell the difference between her prayer and another form of “prayer”.  Oh and she mocked the psychic hotline as people that are silly and are misled…kind of like calling in to BTN or Pat Robertson or any other Christian prayer group, don’t you think?

Ok winding down now, we go back to Genesis and the idea of original sin and how Satan is there to trick Adam and Eve.  Now I read some the wording here and god says basically “don’t eat this fruit, or you’ll die”. Then Satan the snake comes up and says “Hey Eve, you should totally eat that fruit because it’s good, etc.” So Eve does. And they don’t die. Did god LIE to them? Beh,semantics.

Anyway, the reason I bring this part up is to show how backwards this thinking is in the Christian religion. God made a tree that would doom Adam and Eve. God makes Satan, knowing he’s going to trick the humans, and has Satan go do his trickery thing. Then god punishes everyone, but it’s not a curse. He CURSES Satan by doing the snake thing, but here merely JUDGES the humans with all the original sin, etc.  So it’s a JUDGEMENT when god does something evil, but a CURSE when Satan does it. Oh sorry, you weren’t cursed with cerebral palsy, you were JUDGED! Get it right. One way to look at this scenario is that god created a situation in which he knew he was going to have to bring the pain down on Adam and Eve, and he conveniently made Satan his scapegoat.  Satan technically told the truth, eat the fruit and you will know right and wrong. They did, and it made them recognize that they were “naked” if you take the bible in its figurative language. Then they were punished for it. The reason this scapegoating type thing is important is because the pastor said that is what Satan does. He points fingers, he shoves the blame away, the same way a person does when they do something wrong. However, this is exactly what god has done if you are going to maintain an internally consistent story. He creates a no win scenario, blames it on Satan, beats HIM down, then smites some humans. Who is the real evil one here?

But we can all relax! All this is alright because Jesus died on the cross for all our sins. All the apples eaten, the demons in copier machines, the pornography on computers, and yes depression (she blamed clinical depression on Satan too) are all simply water under the bridge. Just arm yourself in the breastplate of righteousness, the helm of salvation; the shield of faith (No science and reason getting in here!), and the Sword of Spirit and you can never be defeated.

Or reasoned with as a rational human being, you take your pick.

Jason Benell



Words and Actions Have Meaning

How many times throughout the day do we say things without really meaning what the words themselves mean? “I’d die for a drink of water right now”, “he’s drop dead gorgeous”, “It’s raining cats and dogs out there” etc.  You know, those little sayings that we use in every day speech that we don’t really mean, but they certainly get our point across.  We don’t really think of those things as serious issues to get hung up on. I mean, no one is going to stop you and say “HEY, it’s not REALLY raining cats and dogs, it’s just raining very hard”, unless they were intentionally being obtuse.

However, when it comes to religious sayings we have to take a second look at these things. Do people really mean “Oh my god, I hope you suspend the laws of physics so I can make this trick shot” or “Jesus protected me during the car accident”? Maybe, maybe not, but the point is that words and ideas do indeed have meaning and we recognize that every day.

Let us look at another example; a current presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann.  She has said: “I will not seek a higher office if God is not calling me to do it. If I am called to serve in that realm I would serve, but if I am not called, I wouldn’t do it.” Do you think Bachmann really means that she won’t serve unless she perceives her god is telling her to? Now, when we consider religious sayings, these little things we say every day can start to have more of an impact.  Do we want someone in charge of things if they have to get an OK from a voice that only they can hear? I think not.  Granted, this is an extreme example, not everyone that uses these religious sayings can be put into such a controversial position, but the point still remains. Words have meaning.

If we look again and again at all of our societal norms and mores we have to consider what we are really saying. When we have a Medal of Honor ceremony, why do we have a prayer? What does that mean? Why do we need to invoke a god to celebrate a heroic soldier? Why do we consistently lie to our children about tooth fairies and Santa Clause?  Even when we tell children that Santa clause or the Easter bunny is real, what does that say about how much we value what is true?   When does it stop being a funny small saying and become a dangerous way of thinking? When does a child’s Santa Clause turn into Bachmann’s god?

The point of this rambling message is that we should take more care and notice when things happen in our society and even in our speech. If we as a people think it’s alright to discriminate against people based religion as long as it isn’t overt, then we are still saying it’s alright to discriminate. So let it rain cats and dogs, and go ahead and die for that drink of water, but when it comes to letting religion into your culture, hold your words to a higher standard.


Jason Benell

Atheists at the Straw Poll-A Mighty Fine Shindig

Well, that was a fun Straw Poll for the atheists that were there. This Saturday I, along with some of my fellow atheists, attended the Ames Straw Poll to participate in the presidential election process. I was one of the people holding the atheist banner: “Keep Religion out of Politics” along with a snippet of the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…..” It was honestly a great chance to meet and greet with people from many different political backgrounds and views, and indeed a great chance to see why people have such a problem with people like me. Being told I’m “disgusting”, “going to hell”, “pathetic”, and that I “need a life” just for attending the Straw Poll really can make one cynical about Iowa politics. It wasn’t all bad though, I was also told I’m “heroic”, “American”, “knowledgeable” and simply “a nice guy” from several other people as well, even from people that disagreed with us atheists. Many of those people that held religious views different from my own still saw the value in our message, which gives me some hope.

However, that wasn’t why I was there; I was there to see how the political process unfolds in our great state of states. I was also there to bring attention to the fact that religious ideology should not be the cornerstone of any candidate’s campaign.

You see, you can be a Republican, or a Democrat, Conservative or Liberal, or any other political ideology in between and still agree with a separation of church and state. In fact, it’s required; it’d be unconstitutional to have a specific religion favored over another. This also includes religion over irreligion, theism over atheism, and vice versa; it works both ways.  Keep in mind this is regardless of what any political figure has said in the past; this is a requirement of a free and equal constitution that contains a 1st and 14th amendment as we have in ours. I do indeed wonder why it was such a rough time for us atheists that were simply there to remind Straw Poll attendees that the 1st amendment in fact exists.

When candidates like Michele Bachmann tell her supporters that she is called by god to run for an office, or when Herman Cain criticizes Obama for not mentioning God enough, these are not the qualities we should be looking for in a candidate. We should be looking for legislation based on the consequence of that legislation not on how a particular candidate feels about their religion directing their ideology. Imagine how horrible it would be if every person in power supported legislation not based on how it affected the citizens but rather how their religious training guided them. That would not be the kind of country I doubt anyone would want to live in, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. It’d be inherently unjust because laws and equality go out the window when someone’s personal feelings about religion begin to dictate law for all citizens.

So if you were out at the Straw Poll this last weekend and you saw us atheists and were curious to know exactly why we were out there, the answer is quite simple: We care about our state and we care about the Constitution.  We care enough that we don’t want our state to be represented by the candidate who can be the most Christian or who can be the most vocal. We want policies based on their results, not on their religious ideological basis, and we want the 1st amendment respected by all presidential candidates.

Jason Benell

Press Officer

Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers

Iowa Straw Poll Needs Rationality

Lately we have seen quite a bit of buzz concerning the Conservative Republican candidates for president coming to Iowa and campaigning for support.  One of the biggest platforms that any of these candidates has is that of religiosity and a strong faith in a Christian god.  Some have even gone so far as to sign a controversial pledge from the Family Leader concerning same sex marriage in Iowa, which indeed described slavery as preferable to same sex marriage.  This platform can also be seen in much of the more recent political rhetoric concerning abortion and same sex marriage or concerning how Christian teachings should be brought into school classrooms.  What is especially troubling is that Iowa is seen as a barometer for political support, yet the GOP candidates come here to see who can “out Christian” who.  This needs to stop and it needs to stop now.

For one, it makes our state look bad. It makes us look like a bunch of people that don’t care about other important issues like the economy or foreign policy, but that Iowans only care about social policies. This is obviously not true, and I encourage all politicians and media sources to stop feeding into this social policy war and focus on what Iowans really care about; making our state and country a better place to live. It also makes us look like a state that does not understand the Constitution.

The very real reason this needs to stop is because much of what is advocated is downright unconstitutional.  If we were to allow Christian teachings, or any religious teachings, over the teachings of any other religion, non-religion, or philosophy, we are tainting the very law itself. We are telling our citizens that our law derives not from the consequences of peoples’ actions, but from a specific religious belief that has been codified.  I can hardly think of anyone that would like to live under a law that tells citizens their religious or non-religious beliefs are illegal or at least not protected.  I think the vast majority of Iowan’s get this, but a very loud minority does not seem to and these are the ones being courted by Conservative GOP candidates. These people seem to think that if we allow THEIR specific religious beliefs to come into law that it is somehow a more just society or a society more in line with the “founding fathers”. This is definitively false, and we don’t need founding fathers to show us this to know that we must have a separation between church and state.

One point that has sprung up on this topic again and again has been the idea that “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. It doesn’t have to; it is self-evidently true that there MUST be a separation of church and state if we are to have a law that applies equally to everyone.  We could not have Christian law ruling in Des Moines and Jewish law in Ames and still adhere to a equal protection clause in the Constitution.  I mean, could you imagine the problems transporting pork and livestock between the two cities?  Let’s not even get into literature and other media, and woe unto any couple that wishes a divorce.  These are some silly examples, but very real examples nonetheless. We cannot have religious doctrine intertwining with civil law but rather the civil law must be, and generally is, created with the consequence of that law in order to further the happiness and productivity of all citizens.

I think most Iowans understand this point and strive to keep a rational head on our shoulders. Going forward, let us keep our law secular, the way it was intended and avoid being swayed by charismatic religious Conservatives looking for your vote. Go into the polls with a clear head and a rational mind, Iowa and prove to the country we are worthy of our political position.

Jason Benell

Press Officer

Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers