Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lucy in Cahoots with Cousins

Regular readers (Hi, Mom, I’ll call on the weekend) will note my predictions on how many humanoid species we’d eventually find living together (16-20). A news article reports on the discovery of a relative to Lucy, our australopith ancestor, “'Lucy' Lived Among Close Cousins: Discovery of Foot Fossil Confirms Two Human Ancestor Species Co-Existed.” (ScienceDaily [Mar. 28, 2012]).

Gee, I hadn’t thought about them. How many australopiths does it take to screw in a light bulb? As many as they can get in.
Getty Images

But I suppose they need a prediction, too. Going back to the original question of what percentage of extinct species have been discovered of comparable-sized animals? It still appears that 10% would be a generous estimate. So, if we’ve now found two Lucy-aged ancestors, wouldn’t it make sense that there were probably twenty similar primates hoofing around the forests of Africa (and, probably, Asia)?

Ya gotta figure we’re just beginning the hunt for fossil ancestors; most of the family is still out there.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


 I love revelations. Not the capital “R,” the ones that happen when you least expect it. The epiphanies, the eureka moments. The ones that confirm my suspicion that we don’t do any conscious thinking at all; it’s all done at the neural or sub-neural level. It took me seventy years to understand this:

The interesting question is not, why is religion universal, but why isn’t it? It used to be. When did the case for religion begin to break down and why? And why has it spread?

There were branches of Eastern religions that espoused a no-god philosophy, but they managed to do it within a structured, religious context; and, inevitably, their sects reverted to more recognizable theisms.

The Greeks could hardly have avoided atheism, but it could still have been punished by pain of death in the wrong circumstances; and the death penalty came back with a vengeance with Christianity. Even today, I wouldn’t advise walking in downtown Kabul and shouting, “Allah is a fuck-head.” You know what I mean?

But likewise, I wouldn’t have gone into downtown Moscow in 1945 and hollered, “Stalin is a fuck-head,” either. State atheism is no saint.

As much as anything, one has to ask, how come it’s such an emotional issue, this religious stuff? Why do people kill over it? Why do they worry about it when they get married? Why do they make such a fuss over it? Curious minds want to know. Like mine, for example.

Like theism, there are multiple forms of atheism from the quasi-religious forms to the brutal state-sponsored forms—what business is it of the state’s, anyway?—and all sorts of philosophical positions in between; but the atheism that concerns me most is the “popular” atheism. As is, “Do you believe in God?”


I think that pretty much sums up atheism for the common person. It’s a rational question to which one can give a rational answer and not expect to be burned at the stake. Anymore. No big deal. Unless you happen to be in Alabama. Or Nigeria. Or a courtroom.

We can thank the Enlightenment for the spread of science, of education. Inch by inch it spreads to all corners of the globe (a globe has corners?) and where it spreads, so does atheism. Like blight on a birthday cake: ooo, there goes the frosting. It’s spread is not uniform; vast areas of both the country and the world are unaffected or lightly so. It’s progress is not smooth, the forces against it would still like to kill.

Yet, apparently, it’s inevitable. Apparently, the forces pushing atheism are the same forces reducing violence and the number of babies being born. It appears that, in some senses, the cures to our problems are spontaneous. Who would have known that population expansion was not exponential but on a bell curve? Who would have known?

In retrospect, the advent of public atheism was inevitable just as was the scientific revolution. Indeed, just as every day is inevitable.

All in all, though, for a subject so central to our time—the spread of rationalism—it’s amazingly understudied. Perhaps it’s taken for granted. Didn’t I just say it was inevitable?

Aren’t you glad you took this train?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ethics Contest: NY Times

Stolen photo (sorry): Gaucho BBQ

I found this contest on my girlfriend-in-law's (that would be my son's girlfriend's) Facebook page and swiftly entered it. My chances of winning being zilch, I thought I'd give all of my readers out there—let's hear it for another big zilch—the chance to read the essay online.


That’s like asking is it ethical that cars run on gasoline? We’re designed to eat meat. Eating meat is a design question, not an ethical one.

Department of Further Amplification:

We are only one of hundreds of thousands (millions?) of meat-eating species. All animals eat other living beings for their sustenance, many of them eat other animals. It’s how they’re designed. Apparently, it’s an inevitable step in life-form development. We’re just one more meat-eating species. There’s no ethical question involved.

As far as I know, we’re the only animal to have extended empathy into ethics, but there are no ground rules. We’re, obviously, not the only animals with empathy, but we’ve taken it to uncharted waters. Whether or not one considers eating meat ethical depends on a host of personal experiences and understandings, but, like all morality, there is no a priori right or wrong.

Likewise, there are debates as to the ethics of raising animals for food which differ from the debate of meat as food per se, and the two shouldn’t be, although frequently are, confused.

It’s good to remember we’re only vegetarians because carrots don’t flop around when we pull them out of the ground. We can’t hear them scream.

Another stolen photo: Moroccan BBQ

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Red Deer Cave People

Photo: BBC, Darth Vader Revealed
From The BBC reporting on a release from PLoS One journal:

“The remains of what may be a previously unknown human species have been identified in southern China.

“The bones, which represent at least five individuals, have been dated to between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago.

“But scientists are calling them simply the Red Deer Cave people, after one of the sites where they were unearthed.”

Take note of those dates. That’s just prior to the beginning of farming, and there’s nothing saying where in the lifespan of this species these remains are from. It could have survived for thousands of years after these individuals and have been around for tens or hundreds of thousands years prior.

A quick count gives us: us, the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, the Hobbits, and now the Red Deer folk roaming around together. My original prediction was for between sixteen and twenty humanoids walking around at the same time. We’ll probably never find them all, but we’re a quarter of the way to twenty with no reason to suspect we’re at the end of the trail yet.

It’s time to revisit cultural memory. Not the conscious cultural memory of history books and monuments and museums but the hidden memory of culture shared through vehicles such as language, folk traditions, myths, and religion; especially the tales of other peoples in the woods, other creatures like, but not like, us. To be sure, we’ve always had tales of bad or dangerous or merely different people, as well, but stories about others not quite human have persisted worldwide since forever. How big were those Hobbits? How tough were those Neanderthals? Think any of them could have lived under the bridge and eaten Billy Goat Gruff?

Utopia: The Next Big Thing

What if we had to invent Utopia? What if we’d done everything else and there was nothing left to do? Might as well make Utopia, eh?

The biggest impediment to utopia has always been population growth. So long as the world’s population was growing exponentially, utopia could be no more than an ephemeral, regional dream. Eventually the chaos of overpopulation would disrupt the entire world. So, for a long time—forever, really—utopia has been a visionary dream, an impossible fantasy, a foolish dawdle in the sands of time.

It turns out we were wrong; we’re not going to die of overpopulation. We won’t all be forced to revert to vegetarianism. We will survive. Unless, of course, we don’t. But we now know it won’t be because of too many people. It appears that crisis is over. Women are having less babies. Everywhere. Even in the jungle, on the steppes, in the mountains. Suddenly everyone has an iPhone and less babies. Perhaps they’re too busy talking these days. “Not now, Tonto, I’m on the phone.”

Distribution will still be a problem, but at least not as desperately as before. We’ll have time to figure the kinks out. Once population stabilizes, we can all stop racing for the bottom. Yes, we can start the socialistic redistribution of wealth. There, I’ve said it. Yes, we can do it; we can make the world rich. We’ve got the time. We’ve got nothing but the time.

Look at it this way: either we’re going to kill ourselves off tomorrow with warfare or environmental degradation or not. If the world-wide reduction in all forms of violence, including war, continues as it has for the past 40,000 years, we’ll probably escape armed obliteration; and it seems we can and are getting a handle on pollution.

That only leaves us with greed and madness. We should be able to handle those, no?

So, isn’t that utopia? A sustainable world reaching out to the stars? What more could we want? Is that not our destiny?

You coming?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Deliver Us from Evil

A Documentary about Oliver O’Grady
Catholic Priest and Pedophile
Currently at Large in Ireland

But is it? Evil? Is the problem the Catholic Church? Is the problem ever the church? Any church?

Is our problem with the Muslims, the Mormons, the Fundamentalists, or the Jews? The Jains, the Buddhists, the Hindus, or Voudoun?

Should we be concerned about the Unitarians?

What should be done with Oliver O’Grady? Hundreds of children? Their mothers? What should be done with Bishop Mahoney (who protects pedophiles) or the Pope?

What should be done about people who blow themselves up, just to kill you? Is there a source for evil? Is there a source for good? What is evil and what is good? How does a person do one or the other? Who is judging? What are the rules?

It’s not so easy, is it?

It begins with babies, no? Either they start out evil or something along the way makes them do evil things. Either they have crossed wiring or bad chemistry, or experience taught them evil was the best solution.

But then, is it evil if they think it’s the best response available? When we confront evil, our instinct is to punish it. Besides correct it, of course.

We rarely look beyond our instinct. Punishment gives us satisfaction, it gives us revenge, which is what we want. We have been injured and we want someone to pay for it. We want, at the very least, the satisfaction of revenge.

That’s usually where we stop thinking. We rarely ask, do we want to change the evil behavior? Do we want to protect our society from evil?

As to the first question, we don’t have much interest in that other than how it relates to the second question. We mainly care about evil when it affects us. We’re only interested in redemption so far as it offers us protection. Unfortunately, instead of redemption we offer more incarceration. We’re more willing to try deterrent than reform, which may be an economic response rather than a rational response.

But punishment, aside from the satisfaction, implies that those babies had a choice about their wiring or their life experience. I don’t know about that; I just don’t know. My gut feeling says that, when evil shows up, something went wrong. Some connections were loose or somebody got a bad education.

How willing a choice did Father O’Grady make? It’s true, he molested hundreds of people, both sexes; and it’s true, he disassociates himself from his crimes (at one point he wanted to have all his victims—in California—come to Ireland together so he could say he was sorry); but what kind of punishment makes sense? Whipping? Stocks? Emasculation? Throw him in a hole at our expense?

Or the Church? What should we do about the Church? Were they not complicit? Didn’t they hide him and shelter him? Didn’t they sexually abuse him when he was a child?

What about his brother or his sister with whom he had sex? Are they complicit, too? What should we do about them?

It gets sticky, doesn’t it?

A suggestion, if you will:

Regardless of the origins of O’Grady’s evil, it was able to spread and go on for so long and still be protected, because of the authority and power of the Catholic Church. Yet the Catholic Church is only one of many churches and mosques and synagogs that operate in essentially the same way: they all require a suspension of rational observation in favor of faith-based belief. The crucial element is not in what you believe, but rather that you are willing to believe in the irrational. The goal is to get you to give up your powers of observation in favor of the party line (herd instinct). Once you believe in the unbelievable, you’ll believe in anything. And once you believe in the unbelievable, you are united with all other people who share the same belief; and those who don’t are your enemies. That’s a vital power for any oligarchy to have over its tribe. It’s so powerful it’s universal and ancient.

What it leads to—and one sees this time and again in the documentary—is people, unthinkingly giving their powers of observation over to other people, to designated authorities. These people really believe in the cloak of piety. These people invited Father O’Grady into their homes to rape their children. They couldn’t believe God could be the source of evil.

That’s the same God who sends children strapped with bombs into crowded marketplaces or sends teenage girls into polygamous marriages or butchers homosexuals. Once they believe…

Can anything be done about it?

Well, not very quickly. We could start by talking about religion. We could put two and two together and see how religion runs as a common theme through so many of our national and international problems that we might want to start taking a closer look at the role religion plays in our communities.

We could start in the schools. We could start in the grade schools. We could have comparative religion taught from kindergarten on. We could teach little kids about the many varieties of faith as an element of culture, and we should treat it as a folk art, along with songs, dances, art, etc. We could teach little kids about the differences between belief and non-belief. As they got older, we could teach students about the role of religion in society; how different societies incorporate religion into their structure. How, for example, does religion affect international alliances? How do religious charities affect the government’s need to supply social programs? Why are some religious issues settled at the ballot box?

Is there any chance of this?


But it would be a good start. And, I believe, it would work. But, then again, I believe in the Enlightenment and I believe in the Emancipation Proclamation. What a fool I am.

On the other hand, I’ve got two things going for me: time and truth. Time will tell.