Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Annals of Wasted Lives, II: The Tennis Queen

It’s been almost exactly two years since I wrote my first post in the “Annals of Wasted Lives” series; I try to wait until really solid examples come my way. That time has come.

In a press conference on March 18, Marion Bartoli, the #1 tennis player in France, claimed to have an IQ of 175.

This is quite the claim. The average person has an IQ of 100; an IQ of 132 will get you into Mensa. An IQ of 175 would be about 5 standard deviations above the mean for intelligence, putting Ms. Bartoli in the range of the 99.99997th percentile of intelligence; put another way, she would be 1 person in about 3.33 million in terms of intellectual ability.* A Yahoo! sports blog claims that an IQ of 175 would exceed the IQs of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. (I myself am aware of no reliable figures for the IQs of these people.)

Let’s mention one issue just to set it aside. I was trained to assess intelligence professionally as part of my doctoral training in psychology, and I am aware of no intelligence test that reliably assesses intelligence above about 150; one might wonder what test was supposedly given to Ms. Bartoli as a child.

But there is a much larger question here: If Ms. Bartoli really possesses a 1-person-in-3.33-million intellect, what is she doing playing tennis?

The world we live in is beset by major challenges: war; terrorism; climate change; poverty; famine; disease; economic upheaval; crime; illiteracy; a myriad of unsolved scientific mysteries and obstacles to technological progress, not to mention problems created by technological progress. Someone possessing an intellect like Ms. Bartoli claims to have should be working primarily on these issues, and playing killer tennis on the weekends.

Am I being judgmental here? Yessiree! Hang on, the best is yet to come.

Individuals like Ms. Bartoli seem focused on their own glory and wealth. In plain words, hers is a self-centered, selfish, even narcissistic quest. Nothing she does will make one life better except her own, and the lives of those on whom she spends money. This is a hollow life, a life of meaningless achievement and acquisition. Absolutely nothing of any greater purpose hinges on whether Ms. Bartoli wins or loses her next match.

But so what? Where do I get off, making judgments like this? Where I take off from is a principle, one that I described at some length in my first post in this series: Our lives are not our own. We owe it to the human race to make the world better than how we found it. On this basis, one has to judge Ms. Bartoli’s life as sorely wanting.

I don’t expect that this post will make one iota of difference to Ms. Bartoli, who almost certainly will never read these words. However, my hope is that my rude words will serve to make us reflect on the direction of our own lives, and the purposes that our actions serve. Because our lives really are not our own; we really do owe something to the world and humanity.

Geniuses—self-proclaimed or otherwise—who withhold their talents from addressing the world’s need are definitely not On The Mark.

[The photo of Marion Bartoli at the 2009 U.S. Open was taken on August 31 of that year by Robbie Mendelson. It was obtained through Wikimedia Commons and appears here under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.]

*William M. Meredith, Basic Mathematical and Statistical Tables for Psychology and Education (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), p. 187, calculated from figures regarding z equal to ± 5.00.

Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Alien Bacteria and God

This falls in the category of “Potentially a Really Big Deal.”

Dr. Richard B. Hoover, a NASA astrobiologist, announced on Friday, March 4th that he had discovered evidence of alien bacterial life, locked inside a rare type of meteorite. (The Yahoo! News online article may be found here, and the FoxNews online article may be found here.) The scientific article announcing his discovery appears in the current issue of the online Journal of Cosmology, which is edited by Dr. Rudy Schild of the Center for Astrophysics, an institute that is administered by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution; in plain words, this is not some kind of pseudoscientific or schlock journal.

The essence of Dr. Hoover’s discovery is that several meteorites of a rare type, found in France and Tanzania, contained fossilized filaments, some of which strongly resemble bacteria found on earth, others of which seem to represent bacteria of a previously unknown type (see photo above). These fossils were found immediately after breaking open the rocks in sterile conditions, so they are highly unlikely to represent contamination from the Earth. Several of the meterorites in Dr. Hoover’s sample were observed falling to Earth and were immediately recovered after their fall. The Journal of Cosmology has taken the unusual step of asking 100 scientists to respond to this paper online, making it the most heavily peer-reviewed article in the history of scientific literature.

People will be debating the evidence given in this article, possibly for years. For the sake of discussion, let us assume for the moment that Dr. Hoover’s findings are solid. So what does this all mean?

First of all, as Dr. Hoover indicates, a valid discovery like this would indicate that bacteria somehow exist, at least in fossilized form, in comets and/or meteors, some of which are presumably the debris of life-bearing planets that broke up or were destroyed, say, by collisions with asteroids (á lá the threats depicted in the 1998 fictional disaster films “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”). The implication here, as Dr. Hoover states, is that “life is everywhere”; that is, life—at least of the microbial sort—is widely distributed on planets outside of our solar system. Of course, if microbial life exists, there is every reason to think that intelligent life has also evolved on other worlds, as well.

Second, as Dr. Hoover also indicates, a valid discovery like this suggests that life on earth may descend from microbial life that was brought to the earth by comets or meteorites.

So, for whom does this all make a difference? My opinion on this might surprise you.

Sure, a valid discovery like this would have implications for those who engage in the study of the universe (cosmology) and the study of life (biology). However, in my opinion, a discovery like this would have some very important implications for vast numbers of people, because of its impact in another field altogether:


What does it mean for beliefs about the nature of humankind to think that life exists on other planets? What does it mean for belief in God and the Bible to think that life came to Earth aboard rocks falling from the sky in the distant past?

There are some, I am sure, who will proclaim Dr. Hoover’s discovery as “yet another step in the displacement of humanity from the center of the universe,” or some such. Some have interpreted the discovery of Nicholas Copernicus (that the Earth revolves with the other planets around the Sun, rather than the Sun revolving around the Earth) and the discoveries of Charles Darwin (to the effect that humanity evolved from other animal species) as being earlier such steps. Beyond this, there are many, I am also sure, who will look to Dr. Hoover’s discovery as suggesting yet another way that the Supreme Being is supposedly “unnecessary” to explain the universe and life within it, and yet another way that the Bible supposedly “fails” to explain scientific realities.

All of that is so much stuff and nonsense.

Let’s take that last point first: the idea that the Bible supposedly has failed to explain the origin of life. It is a principle accepted in many spiritual traditions that the Supreme Being—call that Being “God(s),” “Goddess(es),” “The Ground of All Being,” “The Force,” or whatever works for you—the Supreme Being communicates with people in a language that those people can understand. The holy writings of the spiritual traditions of the world were largely written thousands of years ago; these people could no more have understood the biology of bacteria than our great-great-grandparents could have programmed a digital video recorder. It’s not a matter of intelligence; it is simply a matter of the science and technology that people are familiar with at any point in time.

Given that, it is perfectly understandable that explanations of the beginnings of life on Earth would be given in imprecise, simplified language, rather than in scientifically sophisticated language, in our ancient sacred writings. Taking the book of Genesis in the Bible as an example, sure, it says that the first human was created “of the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Well, what else would it say? Of course people are composed of the elements of the earth. The calcium in my bones comes from plants that I have eaten, plants that themselves absorbed the calcium from the soil. The iron in my blood I have taken from plants and the meat of animals, who themselves obtained that iron from the land. Ultimately, the calcium, the iron, and all the other elements of our bodies were created in the heart of stars, which, when dying as novas or supernovas, ejected the heavier elements into the depths of space, where they collected into the planets we know today. Yes: you really are stardust. And we all have indeed been created from that stardust, a small part of which now comprises “the dust of the ground” of planet Earth.

Earlier, in the account of Genesis chapter 1, we read of the sequence in which life emerged: plants, marine life, non-human mammals, and humans (Gen. 1: 11, 20-26). There is nothing here that precludes the earliest step in the chain being bacteria from space, bacteria that came crashing onto our planet within the meteorites at the heart of water-bearing comets. (For that matter, I have always found it interesting that this is the sequence given in Darwinian theory for the emergence of life.)

I have addressed some concerns of some anti-religious skeptics. Now let’s consider the other side of this coin: people who might be inclined to reject Dr. Hoover’s evidence on religious grounds.

Some people think that belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life (especially intelligent life) is somehow wrong because such life is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Yet, so often, the Bible speaks of things known only to God: “the secret things belong unto the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29). We read of at least one “mystery, which was kept secret since the world began” (Romans 16:25). Those who believe the Bible are fooling themselves if they think that all that God has to show humanity is in the Bible as we have it today; that very doctrine is unBiblical.

Several religions—some from ancient times—have taught that extraterrestrial life may exist. The Padma Purana, a Hindu religious text over a thousand years old, discusses extraterrestrial life, including intelligent life. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan summarized evidence from Jewish Talmudic writings to the effect that extraterrestrial life may exist, within a Jewish conception of the universe. Buddhist cosmology teaches of other worlds; some of these represent mental states, but some represent worlds inhabited by non-humans. Within Islam, the 11th-century scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi taught that, in principle, God may have created multiple inhabited worlds.

Within Christianity, the Vatican’s chief astronomer in 2008 considered the religious implications of extraterrestrial life, and the Roman Catholic church sponsored a conference in 2009 to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The Latter-day Saint Church (disclosure: my own church) has within its scriptures an account of an ancient prophet who “beheld many lands, and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants upon the face thereof” (Moses 1:29).

My point: the discovery of extraterrestrial life—either bacterial life, or, at some future time, intelligent life—poses no threat to religious belief, and does not contradict the major religious traditions of the world. For the believer, finding out more about the wonders of the universe and the life within it is only a greater testimony of the power of the Creator.

Knowing that faith has nothing to fear from scientific truth is On The Mark.

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[The photo reproduces Figure 3b of Dr. Hoover’s article. The image was created with a Hitachi Secondary Electron Detector using 6000X magnification. It shows one of the objects that Dr. Hoover identifies as fossilized bacteria, “showing hook and calyptra or conical apical shell,” as he puts it. It was obtained from the webpage of the article at the Journal of Cosmology website. It is the belief of this author that, because this article was created by a U.S. federal employee in the course of his official duties, the photo is in the public domain.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

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