Leviticus on Homosexuality and other Abominations

This was forwarded to me by my friend Mike Spence in Victoria, B.C. I thought it too good not to share.

The Laura Schlessinger Retort

Laura Schlessinger dispenses sex advice to people who call in to her
radio show. Recently, she said that as an observant Orthodox Jew
homosexuality is to her an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22
and cannot be condoned in any circumstance.

Dear Dr. Laura.

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I
have learned a great deal from your radio show, and I try to share
that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to
defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them
that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the
specific Bible laws and how to follow them.

a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates
a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my
neighbours bitch to the zoning people. They claim the odour is not
pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in
Exodus 21:7. What do you think would be a fair price for her? She's
18 and starting college. Will the slave buyer be required to
continue to pay for her education by law?

c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in
her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem
is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence
and threaten to call Human Resources.

d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and
female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A
friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not
Canadians. Can you clarify?

Why can't I own Canadians? Is there something wrong with them due to
the weather?

e) I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus
35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally
obligated to kill him myself, or should this be a neighbourhood
improvement project? What is a good day to start? Should we begin
with small stones? Kind of lead up to it?

f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an
abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than
homosexuality. I don't agree. I mean, a shrimp just isn't the same
as a you-know-what. Can you settle this?

g) Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I
have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading
glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle
room here? Would contact lenses fall within some exception?

h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair
around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by
Lev.19:27. How should they die? The Mafia once took out Albert
Anastasia in a barbershop, but I'm not Catholic; is this ecumenical
thing a sign that it's ok?

i) I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes
me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two
different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing
garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester
blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really
necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town
together to stone them? (Lev.24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to
death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep
with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident
you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is
eternal and unchanging.

US Back in the Execution Business

In a 7 to 2 vote the US Supreme court ruled April 15th that the most common method of lethal injection to execute condemned prisoners is constitutional.

The justices said the three-drug combination used by Kentucky, the Federal Government and 34 other states, sodium thiopental, which induces unconsciousness; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the muscles; and potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest, does not carry the risk of substantial pain so great as to violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment

"Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of 'objectively intolerable risk of harm' that qualifies as cruel and unusual," wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

This begs the question - Just what would qualify as cruel and unusual?

The immediate result of the decision was to dissolve the de facto moratorium on executions imposed since the court announced in September that it would decide the case, Baze v. Rees. Indeed, only hours later the Governor of Virginia lifted the hold he had placed on capital punishment.

The day before the Supreme Court decision, Amnesty International released its annual report on capital punishment, Death Sentences and Executions in 2007, which said that at least 1,252 people were executed in 24 countries and at least 3,347 people were sentenced to death in 51 countries. Up to 27,500 people are estimated to be on death row across the world

However, the most interesting element of the report (to my mind, at least) was the list of top executing countries. Eighty-eight per cent of all known executions took place in five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA. The actual ranking was:

China – at least 470 executions, Iran – at least 317 executions, Saudi Arabia – at least 143 executions, Pakistan – at least 135 executions, USA – 42 executions followed by Iraq and Viet Nam with at least 33 and 25 executions respectively.

Yes, the land of the free, home of the brave, world leader (?) is right up there with the worst of them – a shameful record.

Since World War II there has been a consistent trend towards abolishing the death penalty. In 1977, 16 countries were abolitionist. As of January 1 2008, 92 countries had abolished capital punishment altogether, 10 had done so for all offences except under special circumstances, and 33 others had not used it for at least 10 years - while 62 countries actively retained the death penalty.

At least 3,000 people (and probably considerably more) were sentenced to death during 2007, and at the end of the year around 25,000 were on death row around the world, with Pakistan and the USA accounting for about half this figure between them.

Because I know you’re going to ask, my country, Canada, eliminated the death penalty for murder on July 14, 1976 because of fears about wrongful convictions, concerns about the state taking the lives of individuals, and uncertainty about the death penalty's role as a deterrent for crime. The last execution in Canada took place on Dec. 10, 1962 at Toronto’s Don Jail.

According to Amnesty International Canada, contrary to predictions by death penalty supporters, the homicide rate in Canada did not increase after abolition in 1976. In fact, the Canadian murder rate declined slightly the following year (from 2.8 per 100,000 to 2.7). Over the next 20 years the homicide rate fluctuated (between 2.2 and 2.8 per 100,000), but the general trend was clearly downwards. It reached a 30-year low in 1995 (1.98) -- the fourth consecutive year-to-year decrease and a full one-third lower than in the year before abolition. In 1998, the homicide rate dipped below 1.9 per 100,000, the lowest rate since the 1960s.

I expect I will get some comments from irate Americans on this one.

From the Why am I not Surprised Department

Yoko Ono sues "Expelled" filmmakers over Imagine

48 minutes ago

NEW YORK (Reuters) - John Lennon's sons and widow, Yoko Ono, are suing the filmmakers of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" for using the song "Imagine" in the documentary without permission.

Lennon recorded the song in 1971 and in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 3 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, according to the lawsuit.

Ono, her son Sean Ono Lennon, and Julian Lennon, John Lennon's son from his first marriage, along with privately held publisher EMI Blackwood Music Inc filed suit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan seeking to bar the filmmakers and their distributors from continuing to use "Imagine" in the movie.

They are also seeking unspecified damages.

The documentary, which features Ben Stein, an actor, comedian and former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, looks at alleged discrimination against scientists and teachers who support so-called intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution.

The suit is against the film's producers and distributors: Premise Media Corporation, C&S Production LP and Rocky Mountain Pictures.

The producers cited the fair use doctrine, which allows the use of copyrighted materials for the purposes of commentary and criticism.

"We are disappointed therefore that Yoko Ono and others have decided to challenge our free speech right to comment on the song 'Imagine' in our documentary film," they said in a statement.

It seems that the producers of Expelled are not only intellectually and scientifically disingenuous. They are plain dishonest.

Muslim Call to Adopt Mecca Time

From the BBC we have this report published today demonstrating the cutting edge of current Muslim scientific thinking.

Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.

Mecca is the direction all Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

The call was issued at a conference held in the Gulf state of Qatar under the title: Mecca, the Centre of the Earth, Theory and Practice.

One geologist argued that unlike other longitudes, Mecca's was in perfect alignment to magnetic north.

He said the English had imposed GMT on the rest of the world by force when Britain was a big colonial power, and it was about time that changed.

Mecca watch

A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim "qibla" - the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.

The meeting also reviewed what has been described as a Mecca watch, the brainchild of a French Muslim.

The watch is said to rotate anti-clockwise and is supposed to help Muslims determine the direction of Mecca from any point on Earth.

The meeting in Qatar is part of a popular trend in some Muslim societies of seeking to find Qur'anic precedents for modern science.

It is called "Ijaz al-Qur'an", which roughly translates as the "miraculous nature of the holy text".

The underlying belief is that scientific truths were also revealed in the Muslim holy book, and it is the work of scholars to unearth and publicise the textual evidence.

But the movement is not without its critics, who say that the notion that modern science was revealed in the Qur'an confuses spiritual truth, which is constant, and empirical truth, which depends on the state of science at any given point in time.

To adopt Mecca time, start by turning your clocks back 1400 years.

On the Road to Beijing

The use of the Olympic Games as a venue for political activity is by no means a new phenomenon. The 1936 Berlin games during which Adolph Hitler’s plans to demonstrate Aryan superiority were scuttled by black American athlete Jesse Owens who won four gold medals in the process; the death of eleven Israeli athletes taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games; the boycott of the 1980 Moscow games by over 60 countries led by the U.S. in retaliation for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan immediately come to mind.

Thus, it is not surprising that, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s abysmal human rights record in China itself, in Tibet and in its failure to pressure its ally and trading partner Sudan to end the fighting in Darfur where over 400,000 have died and 2.5 million displaced is receiving world-wide condemnation and attention.

What is surprising is that the political activity is not coming from governments. Although world leaders openly denounce China’s human rights abuses, afraid of offending the economic giant, none has had the courage to take direct action such as announce a boycott of the opening ceremonies or of the games themselves. All protest activity is coming from human rights organizations and individual activists.

Protesters are well aware that the upcoming Summer Games are not just “fun in the sun” for China. The government has tied the country’s global prestige firmly to the success of the event and as a result is very sensitive to slights, failures or embarrassments.

Currently protesters are concentrating on the Olympic torch relay which to date has been successfully interrupted in both London and Paris where it was doused several times and spent most of the planned route carried on a bus. As I write this, the torch has just arrived in San Francisco where more demonstrations are expected.

The power to mount a really effective protest lies with the athletes. However, under Rule 51, subsection 3, of the Olympic Charter, which says: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." an athlete flashing a “Free Tibet” banner in Beijing risks being sent home.

We can hardly expect or ask of them, many of whom have spent years and in some cases almost a lifetime of training and practice in anticipation of the games, to do anything to damage their chances for an Olympic medal.

Chinese authorities and the IOC will see that direct activism ceases the moment the torch reaches China in May where it is scheduled to go on tour there. Nonetheless, protests along the route of the torch relay to date have successfully refocused the world’s attention on China’s criminal human rights abuses.

Will the Chinese get the message? Unquestionably.

Will they respond appropriately? Probably not.

Fitna - the Movie

I'm probably not the first nor certainly the only blogger to post Geert Wilders' film, but I feel it must get as much distribution as possible.

Here it is.

UPDATE: Mar. 29,2008. No doubt some recent visitors to my blog were unable to access the film. Unfortunately, because of serious threats to their staff, LiveLeak felt they could no longer host "Fitna." To their undying credit,the film has been picked up by Google and is now hosted on Google Video.

Dutch Government Releases Anti-Wilders Film

In an attempt to undermine, or at least neutralize as much as possible, Geert Wilders’ as yet unreleased anti-Islamic film “Fitna” the Dutch government has countered with its own film.

In the aftermath of considerable recent criticism from Islamic countries, particularly Iran, regarding the Wilders’ film and the possible repercussions if and when it is released, they are trying to convince the world that this does not represent the views of the majority of Dutch citizens and that the current situation is indeed an aberration.

While emphasizing freedom of speech in the Netherlands the government film, released through Radio Netherlands Worldwide, fails to make a well reasoned case against Wilders' position regarding Islam and immigration from non-Western countries and resorts to making ad hominem attacks on Wilders himself. People interviewed characterize Wilders as “looking for attention,” “not worth writing a book about,” and “a crazy politician.”

I mentioned it in my last post that "Fitna" would be released on March 23rd. I will try to control my anxiety and reserve further discussion about the film until then.

Galileo Rehabilitated - Catholic Church Recants

“Wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be."

With these words Galileo refuted the assertion made in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” that the earth revolved around the sun. His views were found to be “absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical because expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures” by Pope Urban VIII and he was ordered to stand trial for heresy in 1633.

Forced to recant on penalty of death, he lived the rest of his life under house arrest until his death in 1642.

Now, 400 years later, in an effort to appear relevant in the 21st century, the Roman Catholic Church is completing Galileo’s induction into the Church’s good books (a process started by John Paul II in 1979) by erecting a statue to him inside the Vatican walls.

Nicola Cabibbo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and a nuclear physicist, said: “The Church wants to close the Galileo affair and reach a definitive understanding not only of his great legacy but also of the relationship between science and faith.”

The move should also help defuse hostility towards Pope Benedict XVI (who seems to have been born with his papal foot in his mouth) as the result of a statement he made in 1990, while still a cardinal, in which he quoted a description of the trial of Galileo as fair.

Gee guys, I know you can’t rush into these things, but 400 years?

Jihad Bride Magazine

This brilliant send-up of bridal magazines (and Muslim extremists) made the rounds of the blogosphere two years ago. For those who missed it, as I did, here it is again.

Almost makes me want to subscribe.

Turkey strives for 21st century form of Islam

After 900 years of cultural stagnation Islam may yet see its Age of Enlightenment.

From: guardian.co.uk

Feb. 27, 2008.

Turkey is engaged in a bold and profound attempt to rewrite the basis for Islamic sharia law while also officially reinterpreting the Qur'an for the modern age.

The exercise in reforming Islamic jurisprudence, sponsored by the modernising and mildly Islamic government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is being seen as an iconoclastic campaign to establish a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles.

The result, say experts following the ambitious experiment, could be to diminish Muslim discrimination against women, banish some of the brutal penalties associated with Islamic law, such as stoning and amputation, and redefine Islam as a modern, dynamic force in the large country that pivots between east and west, leaning into the Middle East while aspiring to join the European Union.

A team of reformist Islamic scholars at Ankara University, acting under the auspices of the Diyanet or Directorate of Religious Affairs, the government body which oversees the country's 8,000 mosques and appoints imams, is said to be close to concluding a "reinterpretation" of parts of the Hadith, the collection of thousands of aphorisms and comments said to derive from the prophet Muhammad and which form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence or sharia law. "One of the team doing the revision said they are nearly finished," said Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul commentator who reflects the thinking of the liberal camp in Erdogan's governing AK party. "They have problems with the misogynistic hadith, the ones against women. They may delete some from the collection, declaring them not authentic. That would be a very bold step. Or they may just add footnotes, saying they should be understood from a different historical context."

Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, described the project as an attempt to make Turkish Sunni Islam "fully compatible with contemporary social and moral values.

"They see this not as a revolution, but as a return to the original Islam, away from the excessive conservatism that has stymied all reforms for the last few centuries. It's somewhat akin to the Christian reformation, although not the same."

Under the guidance of Ali Bardokoglu, the liberal Islamic scholar who heads the religious directorate and was appointed by Erdogan, the Ankara theologians are writing a new five-volume "exegesis" of the Qur'an, taking the sacred text apart forensically, rooting it in its time and place, and redefining its message to and relevance for Muslims today. They are also ditching some of the Hadith, sayings ascribed to and comments on the prophet collected a couple of hundred years after his death.

A Roman Catholic Jesuit expert on Turkey and Islam, Felix Koerner, is working with the Ankara professors, reportedly schooling them in the history of western religious and philosophical change and how to apply the lessons of historical Christian reform movements to modern Islam. "This is really a synthesis of modern European critical thought and Muslim Ottoman Qur’anic tradition," said Koerner. "There is also a political agenda. With this government there is more confidence in these modern theologians."

Erdogan insists his AK party, in a country that is constitutionally secularist, is a Turkish Muslim equivalent of a European Christian democratic party - traditionalist, conservative, based on religious values, but democratic, tolerant, and liberal. With Spain and the Zapatero government, he is pushing an "Alliance of Civilisations" aimed at a rapprochement between the Muslim and western worlds. After years of fighting the militantly secularist Turkish establishment, he has just succeeded in lifting the ban on Islamic headscarves for girls in higher education. His many opponents decry it as part of Turkey's slide away from secularism down the slippery slope of Islamism.

Sources say the Islamic reform project is so ambitious and so fundamental it will take years to complete, but that it is already paying dividends - abolition of the death penalty, a campaign against honour killings, and the training and appointment of several hundred women as imams.

Muslim Medics Pose a Danger of Infection in UK Hospitals

There seems to be no end to the demands made by Muslim immigrants with respect to their religious beliefs. While often some accommodation can be made, in this instance their demand is simply unacceptable.

From the Daily Mail, UK - Feb. 26, 2008

Muslim medics refuse to roll up their sleeves in hygiene crackdown - because it's against their religion

Health officials are having crisis talks with Muslim medical staff who have objected to hospital hygiene rules because of religious beliefs.

Medics in hospitals in at least three major English cities have refused to follow the regulations aimed at helping tackle superbugs because of their faith, it has been revealed.

Women medical students at Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool objected to rolling up their sleeves when washing their hands and removing arm coverings in theatre, claiming it is regarded as immodest.

Similar concerns were raised at Leicester University and Sheffield University reported a case of a Muslim medic refusing to "scrub" because it left her forearms exposed.

Some students have said that they would prefer to quit the course rather than expose their arms, but hygiene experts said no exceptions should be made on religious grounds.

A Royal Liverpool hospital spokesman said they had experienced issues of Muslim staff not sanitising their forearms with alcohol gel although this had now been addressed.

Dr Steve Ryan, medical director at Alder Hey said that while the "bare below the elbows" dress code is a matter of patient safety, the trust would work with Muslim students to find a solution.

He said: "We specify bare below elbows, no wrist watches, nail varnish or false nails in clinical areas.

"Good hand hygiene is one of the most important and simplest actions we can take to prevent healthcare associated infections.

"A number of female Muslim students had approached the University of Liverpool to ask if we would provide facilities for them to change their outerwear and Hijab for theatre scrubs.

"We were pleased to accommodate this request and these facilities have now been incorporated."

Dr Charles Tannock, a Conservative MEP and former hospital consultant, said: "These students are being trained using taxpayers' money and they have a duty of care to their patients not to put their health at risk.

"Perhaps these women should not be choosing medicine as a career if they feel unable to abide by the guidelines everyone else has to follow."

But the Islamic Medical Association insisted that covering all the body in public, except the face and hands, was a basic tenet of Islam.

It said: "No practising Muslim woman - doctor, medical student, nurse or patient - should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow."

The new Department of Health guidance was introduced this month in a bid to restrict the spread of potentially fatal infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficle.

The code of practice helps NHS bodies to plan and implement how they can prevent and control healthcare- associated infection.

It sets out criteria by which managers of the NHS organisations are to ensure that patients are cared for in a clean environment and the risk of infections is kept as low as possible.

America Alone - Mark Steyn

The End of the World as We Know It

As the subtitle indicates, in his first book author Steyn contends that the Western world is going to hell in a hand basket. The future, if there is to be one, lies with a conservative America.

Steyn sees three destructive forces at work.

1. Demographics.

2. The multicultural and social policies of the political left.

3. Muslim aggression.

Assuming their accuracy, Steyn’s demographics are hard to refute. The “replacement” fertility rate – the number of babies per women needed to maintain a stable population, not getting any bigger, not getting any smaller is 2.1. The United States is just at the replacement rate with 2.11 births per woman. Ireland at 1.9, Australia at 1.7. Steyn’s (and my) home and native land Canada’s fertility rate is down to 1.5, well below replacement rate; Germany and Austria are at 1.3; Russia and Italy at 1.2; Spain at 1.1 – about half replacement rate. Therefore Spain’s population is halving every generation.

He states that a major contribution to this dismal forecast is the dependency of European countries and Canada on government social programs which are slowly bankrupting the population because of the high taxes required to finance them. Meanwhile, the native born population is aging and unable to sustain the financial burden alone. Furthermore, we’ve become so dependent on government “like a junkie on the state narcotic” that we no longer have the moral fibre to effect change.

Tax revenues required to support the growing number of elderly and retired have to come from an equal number of new young workers. The question is - where’s that workforce going to come from? The answer for Canada and most of Europe has been immigration. Islam is the principal supplier of new workers in Europe and the second biggest in Canada. Ironically, according to the UN the global fertility rate is currently around 1.85 eventually resulting in a total population decline. However, the fastest growing population on the planet at the moment is Muslim, giving them a numerical advantage at least for some time. Net result, according to Steyn – soon Europe and Canada will be overwhelmed by an ever-increasing number of young Muslim immigrants having little interest in Western values of freedom, democracy and secularism.

All this combined with the Muslim rampant desire (if you believe the American conservative element) to convert the infidels to Islam or impose the jizyah tax on those that refuse, leaves us with little hope. In fact, Steyn believes that Europe is already lost and Canada is half way to becoming Canuckistan.

America, on the other hand, a bastion of gun carrying independence and low taxes with a favourable fertility rate will be the saviour of Western culture. Hence the title of the book.

Nice try Mark, but it just ain’t so.

Steyn assumes that current conditions are permanent and no change is possible. In truth, conditions are changing very quickly. All European countries including the UK have introduced integration programs for their admittedly neglected Muslim populations as well as made sweeping changes to their immigration policy while maintaining human rights obligations. Among the changes, doors are being opened to educated and skilled immigrants from former east bloc countries such as Poland.

A recent poll conducted in the Netherlands indicated that 50% of the population is unhappy with the immigrant situation in that country. With that number of disgruntled voters it will not take long for politicians to enact further legislation. Already, the Dutch require potential immigrants to write an examination in their own country and expect them to be able to speak Dutch. Amusingly, would-be immigrants are shown a film featuring scenes of a nude woman and of two gay males kissing with the express message “If this offends you, don’t come.”

Steyn notes gleefully that Pakistan is the number two supplier of immigrants to Canada. Despite his pessimism Pakistanis are integrating well into Canadian society with very few problems. What he does not mention is the number one source of immigrants to CanadaChina. Young Chinese immigrants, staunchly secular, have integrated seamlessly and are already well represented in business, industry and education.

Like a good conservative, Steyn wants to keep most of his earnings and prefers the low tax environment of the U.S. where a serious disease or accident means financial ruin for 47 million Americans and the infrastructure is crumbling as levees fail and bridges collapse.

Good luck.

So Mark, while I think your book's conclusions are faulty, I will defend to the death your right to publish it.

Well, maybe not to the death.

Your Inner Fish - Neil Shubin

A Journey into the 3.5 Billion History of the Human Body

My post of Jan.14, 2008 is an excerpt from the final chapter and it was this passage that whetted my appetite to read the entire book.

Science buffs up on their paleontology will recognize author Shubin as one of a team that, investigating a quarry of 375 million old rocks on Canada’s Ellesmere Island, discovered the famous fossil Tiktaalik, an intermediate species between fish and land mammals

Like a fish, Tiktaalik has scales on its back and fins with webbing, but like the early land living mammals, has a flat head and a neck. Inside the webbed fin are bones that correspond to the upper arm, the forearm and parts of the wrist. Further study of the joints revealed an extraordinary function – it was capable of doing push-ups.

Thus, Shubin introduces us to the remarkable origins of the human body.

Combining DNA studies with genetics and paleontology reveals the connections between human anatomy and that of early, very early, life on earth.

The findings are remarkable.

All appendages, fins or limbs, are built by similar kinds of genes. The evolutionary transition from fin to limb did not require new DNA but rather used ancient genes in new ways to make limbs with fingers and toes.

The biological processes that make all the structures that develop within the skin: scales, hair, feathers, teeth, sweat glands, even mammary glands are all versions of the same thing, the interaction of two layers of tissue in the developing skin.

The basic structures of our head can be traced back to worms, organisms that do not even have a head.

Shubin goes on to describe the development of our eyes and ears and the gradual loss of our sense of smell.

“All animals are the same but different. Like a cake recipe passed down from generation to generation – with enhancements to the cake in each – the recipe that builds our bodies has been passed down, and modified, for eons. We may not look much like sea anemones and jellyfish, but the recipe that builds us is a more intricate version of the one that builds them.”

As an added attraction he explains a simple way to extract DNA from plant or animal bodies, peas, steak or chicken, in the kitchen.

Shubin is one of those rare species, an academic who can write for the rest of the world. His humour and obvious enthusiasm for his subject are infectious, making this book a pleasure to read although a little work is required to grasp some of the science.

A Visit from the Vatican

Like most bloggers I have a program that tracks visits to the View and, like most bloggers, I like to see where the hits come from. Usually, I do a fast run-down once a day looking for anything of particular interest. Imagine my surprise to find that my blog had been accessed by someone in the Vatican. Imagine my further surprise (and amusement) to see that they had read this post.

No, I don't really suppose it was the CEO himself.

Sharia Banking - Again

As a follow-up to one of the most popular posts ever on The View, here is an op/ed item from today's Globe and Mail.

Banks are helping sharia make a back-door entrance

Special to Globe and Mail Update

It seems only yesterday that Premier Dalton McGuinty declared: "There will be no sharia law in Ontario." Many of us, who witnessed the medieval nature of manmade sharia laws in our countries of birth, heaved a sigh of relief back in September of 2005. We thought this was the end of the attempt by Islamists to sneak sharia into a Western jurisdiction. We were wrong.

The campaign to introduce sharia is back. Last time, the campaign took a populist approach, invoking multiculturalism. This time, the pro-sharia lobby is dangling the carrot of new niche markets and has the backing of Canada's major banks. Such icons of the corporate world as Citibank NA, HSBC Holdings PLC, and Barclays PLC have endorsed sharia banking and have started offering Islamic financing products to a vulnerable Muslim population.

In May, 2007, The Globe reported that "Several Canadian financial institutions are preparing sharia-compliant mortgages, insurance, taxi licensing and investment funds to help serve the country's fastest-growing part of the population." Recently, the Toronto Star's business section reported that an unnamed bank may offer sharia loans as early as this summer; Le Journal de Montreal disclosed that Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation(CMHC) was also getting in on the act. Stephanie Rubec, spokesperson for the CMHC, said the Crown corporation had launched a tender worth $100,000 to study Islamic mortgages for Muslim Canadians. Could she be oblivious to the fact that almost all Muslim Canadians currently have home mortgages through banks and don't feel they are living in sin? In fact, CMHC has gone a step further: It has quietly entered into a partnership with a Saudi company, AaYaan Holdings, to develop sharia-compliant mortgage-lending systems.

The origin of Islamic banking has its roots in the 1920s, but did not start until the late 1970s and owes much of its foundation to the Islamist doctrine of two people — Abul Ala Maudoodi of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and Hassan al-Banna of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The theory was put into practice by Pakistani dictator General Zia-ul-Haq who established sharia banking law in Pakistan.

Proponents of sharia banking rest their case on many verses of the Holy Koran that outlaw usury, not interest.

Verses that address the question of loans and debts include:

Al Baqarah (2:275): God hath permitted trade and forbidden usury;

Al Baqarah (2:276): Allah does not bless usury, and He causes charitable deeds to prosper, and Allah does not love any ungrateful sinner.

Every English-language translation of the Koran has translated the Arabic word riba as usury, not interest. Yet, Islamists have deliberately portrayed bank interest as usury and labelled the current banking system as un-Islamic. Instead, these Islamists have created exotic products with names that are foreign to much of the world's Muslim population. This is where they mask interest under the niqab of Mudraba, Musharaka, Murabaha, and Ijara. Two authors, both senior Muslim bankers, have written scathing critiques of sharia banking, one labelling the practice as nothing more than "deception," with the other suggesting the entire exercise was "a convenient pretext for advancing broad Islamic objectives and for lining the pockets of religious officials." Why Canadian banks would contribute to this masquerade is a question for ordinary Canadians to ask.

Muhammad Saleem is a former president and CEO of Park Avenue Bank in New York. Prior to that, he was a senior banker with Bankers Trust where, among other responsibilities, he headed the Middle East division and served as adviser to a prominent Islamic bank based in Bahrain. In his book, Islamic Banking — A $300 Billion Deception, Mr. Saleem not only dismisses the founding premise of sharia and Islamic banking, he says, "Islamic banks do not practise what they preach: they all charge interest, but disguised in Islamic garb. Thus they engage in deceptive and dishonest banking practises."

Another expert, Timur Kuran, who taught Islamic Thought at the University of Southern California, mocks the very idea. In his book, Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism, Prof. Kuran writes that the effort to introduce sharia banking "has promoted the spread of anti-modern currents of thought all across the Islamic world. It has also fostered an environment conducive to Islamist militancy."

Dozens of Islamic scholars and imams now serve on sharia boards of the banking industry. Moreover, a new industry of Islamic banking conferences and forums has emerged, permitting hundreds of sharia scholars to mix and mingle with bankers and economists at financial centres around the globe. In the words of Mr. Saleem, who attended many such meetings, they gather "to hear each other praise each other for all the innovations they are making." He gives examples of how sharia scholars only care for the money they get from banks, willing to rubberstamp any deal where interest is masked.

No sooner had CMHC announced its plans to study sharia-compliant mortgages, than an imam from Montreal's Noor Al Islam mosque offered his services to Canada's banks, claiming Muslims are averse to conventional mortgages because "it goes against their beliefs," a claim that would not withstand the slightest scrutiny.

Other academics who have studied the phenomenon have reached similar conclusions. Two New Zealand business professors, Beng Soon Chong and Ming-Hua Liu of Auckland University, in an October, 2007, study on the growth of Islamic banking in Malaysia, wrote: "Only a negligible portion of Islamic bank financing is strictly 'profit-and-loss sharing' based. … Our study, however, provides new evidence, which shows that, in practice, Islamic deposits are not interest-free." They concluded that the rapid growth in Islamic banking was "largely driven by the Islamic resurgence worldwide."

In the name of Islam, deception and dishonesty is being practised while ordinary Muslims are being made to feel that their interaction with mainstream banks is un-Islamic and sinful. As Mr. Saleem asks, "If Islamic banks label their hamburger a Mecca Burger, as long as it still has the same ingredients as a McDonald's burger, is it really any different in substance?"

Tarek Fatah is the author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, to be published in March.

Dutch Cabinet Decides Against General Burqa Ban

The Dutch cabinet has decided against a general ban on burqas, clothing that covers the whole face except for the eyes.

The cabinet argues that a general ban would violate the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion

The timing of the announcement suggests that the government hopes the move will help ward off violent repercussions should Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders decide to release his anti-Qur’an film at the end of this month as promised. See my post of yesterday. Currently, he is delaying release.

The conservative VVD and Wilders’ Freedom Party have expressed disappointment at the cabinet decision.

They back a general ban because they believe that clothing that covers the face causes unacceptable feelings of insecurity among the general public.

Would you buy a used car from this woman?

A Crisis in the Netherlands

The government of the Netherlands is worried.

Leader of the right-wing Freedom Party, Geert Wilders says he will release a ten minute anti-Qur’an film at the end of this month. Mr. Wilders announced his plans last November. He said he was making the film to show that the Qur’an is a fascist book which incites believers to violence and hatred.

While recognizing Wilders' right to freedom of speech, Dutch authorities are concerned about the possible repercussions similar to the violent reprisals by Muslims after the publication of the Danish “Mohammed cartoons.” The Prime Minister, Interior Minister and Justice Minister have been holding secret meetings about the expected consequences for some time. The National Coordinator for Counterterrorism is also involved in the discussions. Security plans are being made and Dutch nationals overseas have been asked to register with their embassies and local mayors in the Netherlands have been put on standby.

In the past, Wilders has said that half the Qur’an should be torn up and compared it with Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf," the only book banned from distribution in the Netherlands. He has claimed the Netherlands is being swamped by a “tsunami” of Islamic immigrants.

Immigrants from Muslim countries number about 1 million of the country’s 16 million people.

Wilders said he is not afraid of reprisals if his film angers Muslims. “I have lived with 24-hour protection for three years,” he said.

“I will make the film and see what reaction it creates.”

Wilders is not alone in his opinion of Islam and the Qur’an. A poll conducted in September of 2007 showed that Wilders’ Freedom Party has become almost as big as the governing PvdA party in the 150-seat Dutch Parliament. If elections were to held today the Freedom Party would get 19 seats (compared to only 9 in the last elections) while the governing party would only get 20 (down from 33).

Wilders is therefore expressing the opinion of a considerable percentage of Dutch citizens.

To a large extent the Dutch government is responsible for the current unrest in that country. From my post of Nov. 4, 2007:

“The roots of the Dutch situation can be traced back to the 1960’s when thousands of unskilled immigrants came to the country as part of a “guest worker” program for jobs in the textile, ship building and mining industries. Initially from Italy and Spain and later from Turkey and Morocco, they were expected to stay a few years and then return home. Many did indeed leave, but many more did not. Government policy at the time was essentially one of liberal multiculturalism and encouraged people to be educated in their own language and culture. Continuing to turn a blind eye to reality, it was assumed that these workers would assimilate and seek relationships among the existing Dutch population. They didn’t, and were then allowed to sponsor relatives and potential spouses from their own countries.

As the needs of industry evolved from unskilled labour to a high tech workforce Holland found itself divided into essentially two societies – a highly skilled affluent group and an unskilled, impoverished, mostly Muslim underclass with little motive to assimilate.

The 1990’s saw a further influx of immigrants as refugees from countries such as Somalia. Today, Muslims constitute 5.5% of the total population of the Netherlands.”

From her self-imposed exile in Washington, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch parliament, last week criticized the new film as ‘provocation’ and called on the major Dutch political parties to restart a debate on immigration that has split Dutch society in recent years, rather than leave the field to extremists.

The Dutch government must reconsider its immigration, cultural and education policies not only with regard to Muslims but with the object of changing the attitude of much of its non-Muslim citizenry as well - sooner rather than later.

Although, as noted in the above mentioned post, immigrants to Canada are better educated and have marketable skills and therefore pose few problems, Dutch officials could do worse than study the Canadian model.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a year end interview with The Canadian Press on Dec 23, 2007:

“I first of all think immigrants come to this country to belong to this country. I also think that the Canadian approach to this, which is a mixture of integration and accommodation, for lack of a better term, is the right approach.

I know there's a popularly expressed view that immigrants come here and they should change to suit the country. I think they overwhelmingly do. But I think the fact is our country also consciously changes somewhat for new immigrants and new cultures, and I think that's a successful model. I think if you look around the world for issues of immigration and cultural integration, Canada is as successful as any other country in this regard.

In Ontario, there's been some concern about radical elements in the Muslim community, but these are at the margins. The fact of the matter is there aren't cultural tensions in the country, there generally is a healthy process of integration along with accommodation and if you focus on the Islamic community, yes there are extremist elements but they are small and marginal and the problems we face in this country compared with other countries are tiny.”

Harper said his cabinet has been discussing issues of Canadian identity and how to foster a sense of Canadian values.

"We probably need to have some thought about what the shared values really are, and how we strengthen those, but that said I don't see a cultural fragmentation in this country, I just don't see it."

Bruce Anderson, president of Harris-Decima Research, said Harper's approach seems to mirror how Canadians feel about the issue of racial harmony.

"Voters in Canada have tended pretty routinely in the past to saying, 'Look, we know we have a fragile consensus. On balance, rather than blow that consensus up because we have strong opinions, we'd rather bury our strong opinions and make the fragile consensus continue to hold.’

It’s time the governing party of the Netherlands and its coalition partners address the problem realistically.

Wilders' provocative film, if indeed he does release it, will not make that process any easier.

Getting In Touch with Your Inner Fish

This lengthy article, which I shamelessly lifted from the University of Chicago Magazine, presents the best refutation of Intelligent Design that I have seen.

Adapted from Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin © 2008. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Shubin, Chicago's Robert R. Bensley professor, chair and associate dean for Organismal Biology & Anatomy, is also provost of the Field Museum of Natural History.

Hernias, hiccups, and snores—oh, my! It's been 3.5 billion years, and the human body's past still plays a role in our lives and health.

My knee was swollen to the size of a grapefruit, and one of my colleagues from the surgery department was twisting and bending it to determine whether I had strained or ripped one of the ligaments or cartilage pads inside. This, and the MRI scan that followed, revealed a torn meniscus, the probable result of 25 years spent carrying a backpack over rocks, boulders, and scree in the field. Hurt your knee and you will almost certainly injure one or more of three structures: the medial meniscus, the medial collateral ligament, or the anterior cruciate ligament. So regular are injuries to these three parts of your knee that these three structures are known among doctors as the "Unhappy Triad." They are clear evidence of the pitfalls of having an inner fish. Fish do not walk on two legs.

Our humanity comes at a cost. For the exceptional combination of things we do—talk, think, grasp, and walk on two legs—we pay a price.

This is an inevitable result of the tree of life inside us. Imagine trying to jerry-rig a Volkswagen Beetle to travel at speeds of 150 miles per hour. In 1933 Adolf Hitler commissioned Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to develop a cheap car that could get 40 miles per gallon of gas and provide a reliable form of transportation for the average German family. The result was the VW Beetle. This history, Hitler's plan, places constraints on the ways we can modify the Beetle today; the engineering can be tweaked only so far before major problems arise and the car reaches its limit.

In many ways, we humans are the fish equivalent of a hot-rod Beetle. Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers—and you have a recipe for problems. We can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price. In a perfectly designed world—one with no history—we would not have to suffer everything from hemorrhoids to cancer.

Nowhere is this history more visible than in the detours, twists, and turns of our arteries, nerves, and veins. Follow some nerves and you'll find that they make strange loops around other organs, apparently going in one direction only to twist and end up in an unexpected place. The detours are fascinating products of our past that, as we'll see, often create problems—hiccups and hernias, for example. And this is only one way our past comes back to plague us.

Our deep history was spent, at different times, in ancient oceans, small streams, and savannahs, not office buildings, ski slopes, and tennis courts. We were not designed to live past the age of 80, sit on our keisters for ten hours a day, and eat Hostess Twinkies, nor were we designed to play football. This disconnect between our past and our human present means that our bodies fall apart in certain predictable ways.

Virtually every illness we suffer has some historical component. The examples that follow reflect how different branches of the tree of life inside us—from ancient humans, to amphibians and fish, and finally to microbes—come back to pester us today. Each of these examples show that we were not designed rationally but are products of a convoluted history.

I. Our hunter-gatherer past: obesity, heart disease, and hemorrhoids.

During our history as fish we were active predators in ancient oceans and streams. During our more recent past as amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, we were active creatures preying on everything from reptiles to insects. Even more recently, as primates, we were active tree-living animals, feeding on fruits and leaves. Early humans were active hunter-gatherers and, ultimately, agriculturalists. Did you notice a theme here? That common thread is the word "active."

The bad news is that most of us spend a large portion of our day being anything but active. I am sitting on my behind at this very minute typing this, and a number of you are doing the same reading it (except for the virtuous among us who are reading it in the gym). Our history from fish to early human in no way prepared us for this new regimen. This collision between present and past has its signature in many of the ailments of modern life.

What are the leading causes of death in humans? Four of the top ten causes—heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and stroke—have some sort of genetic basis and, likely, a historical one. Much of the difficulty is almost certainly due to our having a body built for an active animal but the lifestyle of a spud.

In 1962 the anthropologist James Neel addressed this notion from the perspective of our diet. Formulating what became known as the "thrifty genotype" hypothesis, Neel suggested that our human ancestors were adapted for a boom-bust existence. As hunter-gatherers, early humans would have experienced periods of bounty, when prey was common and hunting successful. These periods of plenty would be punctuated by times of scarcity, when our ancestors had considerably less to eat.

Neel hypothesized that this cycle of feast and famine had a signature in our genes and in our illnesses. Essentially, he proposed that our ancestors'bodies allowed them to save resources during times of plenty so as to use them during periods of famine. In this context, fat storage becomes very useful. The energy in the food we eat is apportioned so that some supports our activities going on now, and some is stored, for example in fat, to be used later. This apportionment works well in a boom-bust world, but it fails miserably in an environment where rich foods are available 24/7. Obesity and its associated maladies—age-related diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease—become the natural state of affairs. The thrifty genotype hypothesis also might explain why we love fatty foods. They are high-value in terms of how much energy they contain, something that would have conferred a distinct advantage in our distant past.

Our sedentary lifestyle affects us in other ways, because our circulatory system originally appeared in more active animals. Our heart pumps blood, which is carried to our organs via arteries and returned to the heart by way of veins. Because arteries are closer to the pump, the blood pressure in them is much higher than in veins. This can be a particular problem for the blood that needs to return to our heart from our feet. Blood from the feet needs to go uphill, so to speak, up the veins of our legs to our abdomen. If the blood is under low pressure, it may not climb all the way. Consequently, we have two features that help the blood move up. The first are little valves that permit the blood to move up, but stop it from going down. The other feature is our leg muscles. When we walk we contract them, and this contraction serves to pump the blood up our leg veins. The one-way valves and the leg-muscle pumps enable our blood to climb from feet to abdomen.

This system works superbly in an active animal, which uses its legs to walk, run, and jump. It does not work well in a more sedentary creature. If the legs are not used much, the muscles will not pump the blood up the veins. Problems can develop if blood pools in the veins, because that pooling can cause the valves to fail. This is exactly what happens with varicose veins. As the valves fail, blood pools in the veins.The veins get bigger and bigger, swelling and taking tortuous paths in our legs.

Needless to say, the arrangement of veins can also be a real pain in the behind. Truck drivers and others who sit for long stretches of time are particularly prone to hemorrhoids, another cost of our sedentary lives. During their long hours of sitting, blood pools in the veins and spaces around the rectum. As the blood pools, hemorrhoids form—an unpleasant reminder that we were not built to sit for too long, particularly not on soft surfaces.

II. Primate past: talk is not cheap.

Talking comes at a steep price: choking and sleep apnea are high on the list of problems we have to live with in order to be able to talk.

We produce speech sounds by controlling motions of the tongue, the larynx, and the back of the throat. All are relatively simple modifications to the basic design of a mammal or a reptile. The human larynx is made up mostly of gill arch cartilages, corresponding to the gill bars of a shark or fish. The back of the throat, extending from the last molar tooth to just above the voice box, has flexible walls that can open and close. We make speech sounds by moving our tongue, by changing the shape of our mouth, and by contracting a number of muscles that control the rigidity of this wall.

Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous trade-off for the ability to talk. During sleep, the muscles of our throat relax. In most people, this does not present a problem, but in some the passage can collapse so that relatively long stretches pass without a breath. This, of course, can be risky, particularly in people who have heart conditions. The flexibility of our throat, so useful in our ability to speak, makes us susceptible to a form of sleep apnea that results from obstruction of the airway.

Another trade-off of this design is choking. Our mouth leads both to the trachea, through which we breathe, and to our esophagus, so we use the same passage to swallow, breathe, and talk. These three functions can be at odds, for example, when a piece of food gets lodged in the trachea.

III. A hiccup in our tadpole past

This annoyance has its roots in the history we share with fish and tadpoles.

If there is any consolation for getting hiccups, it is that our misery is shared with many other mammals. Cats can be stimulated to hiccup by sending an electrical impulse to a small patch of tissue in their brain stem. This area of the brain stem is thought to be the center that controls the complicated reflex that we call a hiccup. The hiccup reflex is a stereotyped twitch involving a number of muscles in our body wall, diaphragm, neck, and throat. A spasm in one or two of the major nerves that control breathing causes these muscles to contract. This results in a very sharp inspiration of air. Then, about 35 milliseconds later, a flap of tissue in the back of our throat (the glottis) closes the top of our airway. The fast inhalation followed by a brief closure of the tube produces the "hic."

But we rarely experience only a single hic. Stop the hiccups in the first five to ten hics, and you have a decent chance of ending the bout altogether. Miss that window, and the bout of hiccups can persist for an average of about 60 hics. Inhaling carbon dioxide (by breathing into the classic paper bag) and stretching the body wall (taking a big inhalation and holding it) can end hiccups early in some of us. But not all. Some cases of pathological hiccups can be extremely prolonged. The longest uninterrupted hiccups in a person lasted from 1922 to 1990.

Our tendency to develop hiccups is another influence of our past. There are two issues to think about. The first is what causes the spasm of nerves that initiates the hiccup. The second is what controls that distinctive hic, the abrupt inhalation–glottis closure. The nerve spasm is a product of our fish history, while the hic is an outcome of the history we share with animals such as tadpoles.

First, fish. Our brain can control our breathing without any conscious effort on our part. Most of the work takes place in the brain stem, at the boundary between the brain and the spinal cord. The brain stem sends nerve impulses to our main breathing muscles. Breathing happens in a pattern. Muscles of the chest, diaphragm, and throat contract in a well-defined order. Consequently, this part of the brain stem is known as a "central pattern generator." This region can produce rhythmic patterns of nerve and, consequently, muscle activation. A number of such generators in our brain and spinal cord control other rhythmic behaviors, such as swallowing and walking.

The problem is that the brain stem originally controlled breathing in fish; it has been jerry-rigged to work in mammals. Sharks and bony fish all have a portion of the brain stem that regulates the rhythmic firing of muscles in the throat and around the gills. The nerves that control these areas all originate in a well-defined portion of the brain stem. We can even see this nerve arrangement in some of the most primitive fish in the fossil record. Ancient ostracoderms, from rocks over 400 million years old, preserve casts of the brain and cranial nerves. Just as in living fish, the nerves that control breathing extend from the brain stem.

This works well in fish, but it is a lousy arrangement for mammals. In fish the nerves that control breathing do not have to travel very far from the brain stem. The gills and throat generally surround this area of the brain. Mammals have a different problem. Our breathing is controlled by muscles in the wall of our chest and by the diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that separates chest from abdomen. Contraction of the diaphragm controls inspiration. The nerves that control the diaphragm exit our brain just as they do in fish, and they leave from the brain stem, near our neck. These nerves, the vagus and the phrenic nerve, extend from the base of the skull and travel through the chest cavity to reach the diaphragm and the portions of the chest that control breathing. This convoluted path creates problems; a rational design would have the nerves traveling not from the neck but from somewhere nearer the diaphragm. Unfortunately, anything that interferes with one of these nerves can block their function or cause a spasm.

If the odd course of our nerves is a product of our fishy past, the hiccup itself is likely the product of our history as amphibians. Hiccups are unique among our breathing behaviors in that an abrupt intake of air is followed by a closure of the glottis. Hiccups seem to be controlled by a central pattern generator in the brain stem: stimulate this region with an electrical impulse, and we stimulate hiccups. It makes sense that hiccups are controlled by a central pattern generator, since, as in other rhythmic behaviors, a typical sequence of events happens during a hic.

It turns out that the pattern generator responsible for hiccups is virtually identical to one in amphibians. And not in just any amphibians—in tadpoles, which use both lungs and gills to breathe. Tadpoles use this pattern generator when they breathe with gills. In that circumstance, they want to pump water into their mouth and throat and across the gills, but they do not want the water to enter their lungs. To prevent it from doing so, they close the glottis, the flap that closes off the breathing tube. And to close the glottis, tadpoles have a central pattern generator in their brain stem so that an inspiration is followed immediately by a closing glottis. They can breathe with their gills thanks to an extended form of hiccup.

The parallels between our hiccups and gill breathing in tadpoles are so extensive that many have proposed that the two phenomena are one and the same. Gill breathing in tadpoles can be blocked by carbon dioxide, just like our hiccups. We can also block gill breathing by stretching the wall of the chest, just as we can stop hiccups by inhaling deeply and holding our breath. Perhaps we could even block gill breathing in tadpoles by having them drink a glass of water upside down.

IV. What's fishy about hernias

Our propensity for hernias, at least for those hernias near the groin, results from taking a fish body and morphing it into a mammal.

Fish have gonads that extend toward their chest, approaching their heart. Mammals don't, and therein lies the problem. It is a very good thing that our gonads are not deep in our chest and near our heart (although it might make reciting the Pledge of Allegiance a different experience). If our gonads were in our chest, we wouldn't be able to have babies.

Slit the belly of a shark from mouth to tail. The first thing you'll see is liver, a lot of it. The liver of a shark is gigantic. Some zoologists believe that a large liver contributes to the buoyancy of the shark. Move the liver away and you'll find the gonads extending up near the heart, in the "chest" area. This arrangement is typical of most fish: the gonads lie toward the front of the body.

In us, as in most mammals, this arrangement would be a disaster. Males continuously produce sperm throughout our lives. Sperm are finicky little cells that need exactly the right range of temperatures to develop correctly for the three months they live. Too hot, and sperm are malformed; too cold, and they die. Male mammals have a neat little device for controlling the temperature of the sperm-making apparatus: the scrotum. As we all know, the male gonads sit in a sac. Inside the skin of the sac are muscles that can expand and contract as the temperature changes. Muscles also lie in our sperm cords. Hence, the cold-shower effect: the scrotum will tuck close to the body when it is cold. The whole package rises and falls with temperature. This is all a way to optimize the production of healthy sperm.

The dangling scrotum also serves as a sexual signal in many mammals. Between the physiological advantages of having gonads outside the body wall, and the occasional benefits this provides in securing mates, there are ample advantages for our distant mammalian ancestors in having a scrotum.

The disadvantage is that the plumbing that carries sperm to the penis is circuitous. Sperm travel from the testes in the scrotum through the sperm cord. The cord leaves the scrotum, travels up toward the waist, loops over the pelvis, then goes through the pelvis to travel through the penis and out. Along this complex path, the sperm gain seminal fluids from a number of glands that connect to the tube.

The reason for this absurd route lies in our developmental and evolutionary history. Our gonads begin their development in much the same place as a shark's: up near our livers. As they grow and develop, our gonads descend. In females the ovaries descend from the midsection to lie near the uterus and fallopian tubes. This ensures that the egg does not have far to travel to be fertilized. In males the descent goes farther.

The descent of the gonads, particularly in males, creates a weak spot in the body wall. To envision what happens when the testes and spermatic cord descend to form a scrotum, imagine pushing your fist against a rubber sheet. In this example, your fist becomes equivalent to the testes and your arm to the spermatic cord. The problem is that you have created a weak space where your arm sits. Where once the rubber sheet was a simple wall, you've now made another space, between your arm and the rubber sheet, where things can slip. This is essentially what happens in many types of inguinal hernias in men. Some of these inguinal hernias are congenital—when a piece of the gut travels with the testes as it descends. Another kind of inguinal hernia is acquired. When we contract our abdominal muscles, our guts push against the body wall. A weakness in the body wall means that guts can escape the body cavity and be squeezed to lie next to the spermatic cord.

Females are far tougher than males, particularly in this part of the body. Because females do not have a giant tube running through it, their abdominal wall is much stronger than a man's.

This is a good thing when you think of the enormous stresses that female body walls go through during pregnancy and childbirth. A tube through the body wall just wouldn't do. Men's tendency to develop hernias is a trade-off between our fish ancestry and our mammal present.

V. Mitochondria's bacterial legacy

Mitochondria exist inside every cell of our bodies, doing a remarkable number of things. Their most obvious job is to turn oxygen and sugars into a kind of energy we can use inside our cells. Other tasks include metabolizing toxins in our livers and regulating different parts of cell function. We notice our mitochondria only when things go wrong. Unfortunately, the list of diseases caused by malfunctioning mitochondria is extraordinarily long and complex. If there is a problem in the chemical reactions in which oxygen is consumed, energy production can be impaired. The malfunction may be confined to individual tissues, say the eyes, or may affect every system in the body. Depending on the location and severity of the malfunction, it can lead to anything from weakness to death.

Many of the processes we use to live reflect our mitochondria's history. The chain reaction of chemical events that turns sugars and oxygen into usable energy and carbon dioxide arose billions of years ago, and versions of it are still seen in diverse microbes. Mitochondria carry this bacterial past inside of them: with an entire genetic structure and cellular microstructure similar to bacteria, it is generally accepted that they arose from originally free-living microbes over a billion years ago. In fact, the entire energy-generating machinery of our mitochondria arose in one of these kinds of ancient bacteria.

The bacterial past can be used to our advantage in studying the diseases of mitochondria—in fact, some of the best experimental models for these diseases are bacteria. This is powerful because we can do all kinds of experiments with bacteria that are not possible with human cells. One of the most provocative studies was done by a team of scientists from Italy and Germany. The disease they studied invariably kills the infants who are born with it. Called cardioencephalomyopathy, it results from a genetic change that interrupts the normal metabolic function of mitochondria. In studying a patient who had the disease, the team identified a place in the DNA that had a suspicious change. Knowing something about the history of life, they then turned to the microbe known as Paracoccus denitrificans, which is often called a free-living mitochondrion because its genes and chemical pathways are so similar to those of mitochondria. Just how similar was revealed by the European team. They produced the same change in the bacteria's genes that they saw in their human patient. What they found makes total sense, once we know our history. They were able to simulate parts of a human mitochondrial disease in a bacterium, with virtually the same change in metabolism. This is putting a many-billion-year part of our history to work for us.

The example from microbes is not unique. Judging by the Nobel Prizes awarded in medicine and physiology in the past 13 years, I should have called this book Your Inner Fly, Your Inner Worm, or Your Inner Yeast. Pioneering research on flies won the 1995 Nobel Prize in medicine for uncovering a set of genes that builds bodies in humans and other animals. Nobels in medicine in 2002 and 2006 went to people who made significant advances in human genetics and health by studying an insignificant-looking little worm (C. elegans). Similarly, in 2001, elegant analyses of yeast (including baker's yeast) and sea urchins won the Nobel in medicine for increasing our understanding of some of the basic biology of all cells. These are not esoteric discoveries made on obscure and unimportant creatures. These discoveries on yeast, flies, worms, and, yes, fish tell us about how our own bodies work, the causes of many of the diseases we suffer, and ways we can develop tools to make our lives longer and healthier.

The Call to Prayer in Britain

The Anglican Bishop of Rochester (UK), Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali has created considerable notoriety claiming that there are areas across Britain where it is too dangerous for non-Muslims to enter. He says that people of a different race or faith face physical attack if they live or work in Muslim dominated communities.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Dr. Nazir-Ali said there had been attempts to “impose ‘Islamic’ character on certain areas” by, for example, amplifying the adhan (call to prayer) from mosques and questioning whether non-Muslims “wish to be told the creed of a particular faith five times a day, seven days a week on the loudspeaker”

There are several versions of the adhan. This is one of them.

The Muslim Council of Britain calls his comments “frantic scaremongering.” and describes the call to prayer as no different than the ringing of church bells.