Friday, November 30, 2012

Spear-Fishing Organgutans

This is old hat, 2008, but I hadn’t run across it before: the spear-fishing orangutan. He’d observed people fishing and decided to give it a whack. The report said, “Although the method required too much skill for him to master, he was later able to improvise by using the pole to catch fish already trapped in the locals’ fishing lines.”

What I find remarkable, as much as the orangutan’s ability to figure out a complex problem, is the fact that it was a fish-eater. Orangutans eat fish? Who knew? Did they learn it from people? Gee, what could a couple million years of fish-eating do to the orangutans? How about if we threw in a few bush babies?

Process that along with the image of the orangutan mother filmed taking her baby into the canoe for a paddle on the pond. She undoubtedly learned that from people, too. How much can an orangutan learn? I’m impressed.

Why I Skipped Grad School

The fellow was giving an informative and amusing TED talk about animals and was discussing a kind of flightless New Zealand parrot when he made the common observation that New Zealand had numerous flightless birds due to lack of predators. It appears the islands have never been connected to the other land masses so that whatever lives there either flew or hitched a ride; and, apparently, no predators did, only birds.

That’s when my convoluted thinking stepped in. Hmm, I thought, strange that no bird there had decided to become predatory. Step two: stranger still that no hawk or eagle had taken to flying over with the rest of the birds; didn’t they have them in Australia?

Well, yes, they do have them in Australia, it turns out. Only then did it occur to me to check out New Zealand where I should have begun the search, and, yes, New Zealand does have hawks and owls. Always has had.

One can only presume that it was a more effective means of escape to hide than to fly for many New Zealand birds, but predators they have and had.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Child of Grace

Original grace, not original sin.

What a twisted concept to believe that children are born into sin and that someone 2000 years ago died on their behalf. That’s a hell of a burden to start someone out with, don’t you think? Where did that bizarre notion originate? I find it much more likely that children are born pure and are shaped by their environment. If they turn out not so good, who ya gonna call? And what are ya gonna do about it? Seems fruitless to blame the kid. Either he/she started out with less than a full basket of eggs or some got cracked along the way.


A species divided against itself is a contradiction of nature; it cannot last. The idea that we are any less than one species is, not only false, but surely temporary.

The human species is remarkable, not for its warfare or destructive capabilities, but for its capacity for cooperation. Aside from ants, termites, and bees, not many animals are capable of organizing thousands of its members for a single task. The world as we see it today is a marvel of human cooperation, voluntary or otherwise.

Which is only to be expected. Any species is, essentially, a DNA stream broken into millions of components. Components, yes, but still integral with the whole and not separate from it. Individual species units are more like detached toes than self-sustaining entities. It is the ultimate goal of any species to further its entire self, not just parts of it. It expects losses, which is part of the reason it divides into so many units, but it doesn’t encourage them. In the main, species devise ways of cooperation and social interaction between members; to do otherwise would be inviting disease into the organism. Species do seem to foster competition between members, but not usually to the death, and usually, apparently, more to keep the species vigorous rather than complacent in the quest for food and staying alive. Competition, apparently, is a way to test the viability of mutations. In the end, the only thing that wins is successful breeding over generations. It’s not who wins the lion’s share that’s important; it’s who remains to have any shares after the dust has settled. The survivors are the winner, no matter how they got there.

The recognition of “oneness” appears to be spreading across the globe. My kids and my kids’ kids are okay with the world. They aren’t worried about being taken over by anyone other than too many people; and I try and convince them that that’s not a problem. (Okay, that’s not entirely true; they are concerned about mega-corporations.) It’s not that they’re oblivious to color, but rather that they can’t see reason to rank sunsets versus sunrises. We’re a family where you can be anything you want except a Republican.

And we’re not unusual, much less unique. Granted, that may not be true if you’re living in Dallas or Indianapolis, but it’s certainly true in this part of the world; and if the polls are correct, it—this wanton permissiveness—seems to be creeping into the young everywhere.

I’m thinking, maybe that overpopulation had something to do with it. Certainly, moving into cities did. Rural divisions break down in the city. Once you hit Portland, we don’t care if you’re from Montana or Iowa. we really don’t. And soon, no one does. It’s a world-wide phenomenon.


It would seem that overpopulation rarely annihilates a species. More often, it decimates it instead. (Okay, worse than decimate, because, technically, that’s only ten percent.) The effects of overpopulation, especially in face of a food-source collapse, can be catastrophic. Usually, though, enough members survive to form a recovery population that can grow with the rebounding food-source. Evolution is a kaleidoscope of change punctuated by periods where the scope is emptied of stones and new ones entered.

That being said, the human race will never knowingly erase itself. By accident, no problem, but willingly, no. The trick is avoiding the accidents.

The good news is that, all things considered, we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding them so far. Seven billion of us, right? Couldn’t have gotten that big by killing everyone in sight, now could we? However you cut that cake, we’ve been a magnificently successful species. Us and tomatoes and Norway rats.

To a large extent, being a highly social species has been our success. If we weren’t inclined towards getting along with our neighbors, we wouldn’t have figured out how to get so populous. We not only had to figure out how to produce more food, we had to figure out how to distribute it.


Empathy and love.

I was set to thinking when I heard the biologist suppose that the love felt by geese for one another was the same as the love people felt for each other; why invent the same emotion twice? Wasn’t love just an evolutionarily evolved bonding mechanism that increased the success rate for one’s offspring? I think we tend to think that we’ve invented emotions with our minds rather than them being primitive control mechanisms that function as survival aids. I’d vote for the latter.

And what is empathy other than love for our fellow humans? Empathy is more than just feeling another’s pain, it’s caring about that feeling. The torturer is well aware of the damage he or she is inflicting; they don’t care. Empathy goes beyond knowledge, it goes to accepting some of the suffering unto one’s self. It is recognizing the essential oneness of all humanity, that the overriding importance is our unity as a species. It’s not hard to imagine that the more empathy a tribe recognizes, the better off its members are.

It is hard to see empathy as anything that a more generalized form of love, that it, too, is a primitive emotion operating below the radar of awareness.

Love, indeed, makes the world go round. We’d never have made it this far without it and we’ll need a lot more of it to convince everyone to stop killing each other for whatever reason. Once again, it’s time to thank God for evolution. Without evolution, we’d still be boiling in the primordial soup.


Natural selection is what’s causing the world population paradigm shift. It makes no difference what sets up the conditions—moving to the cities, cell phones, whatever—DNA doesn’t care. DNA only cares about what succeeds. Those families more successful in bringing their offspring to fruition are more likely to perpetuate themselves. For millions of years, survival was dependent on producing as many offspring as possible. Large families tended to surpass small families, especially in farming communities. Hence, the human population exploded.

Now, though, it is most often more expensive to have a large versus a small family. Offspring in smaller families where the resources don’t have to be spread so thinly tend to do better than offspring from larger families. Large families are now a burden, not an aid to the parents; hence we’ve automatically stopped having them, irrespective of what government thinks or wishes. Nothing like a ghetto to inspire birth control. Those same economic realities also now tend to play out in rural areas as well as urban so that rural family size is also falling.

A word of caution: capitalism is a large ponzi scheme, it depends on an ever-growing base. Surely you’ve noted that all economic indicators measure market growth, not accomplishment. The market report never tells you what the company did that day, only how well their stocks performed.

Have you heard of the man who makes Wensleydale cheese? He readily sells all the cheese he makes; he doesn’t begin to cover the demand. He’s constantly pressured to increase his capacity, but he steadfastly refuses. His argument is that he makes enough money and has all the work he can handle, so why should he do more? If you want more cheese, go make your own.

Now, what sort of capitalist is that? None at all. He’s happy to be a great cheese-maker making all the money he can comfortably spend. For some reason the god of reason hasn’t touched him and he’s content with his life. He doesn’t want more. It’s unfortunate, but true.

As a consequence, you won’t find his stock on the exchange. His stock is his skill.

What I’m suggesting is that it might be possible to have a society built around creating great things and doing great things but not necessarily on the principles of getting bigger and huger. A society where people can expect their just rewards but not the rewards of their neighbors. I’m also suggesting that, if we reach a population maximum for this planet and our population begins to decline, we might need a different paradigm than capitalism, no matter how successful it is at amassing resources at this time. I’m just saying…

Nor am I saying that I have a replacement. My only advice would be to talk about it before rushing into anything. There doesn’t seem to be a good meta-answer on the horizon; we’ll have to be content with working on the little things, like a universal minimum wage.

Oops, there I go again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reaganomics and God

The train started rolling when I was thinking about Reagan. I was wondering about this, how one of the worse presidents of all time could be so revered. Still. Here he was, a senile blob to begin with and he’s still treated as some sort of god.

Ah ha! The bells went off: “Some sort of god.” Exactly. It’s the believer syndrome: ignore reality, go with faith. Trying to talk sense to a Reaganite makes as much sense as trying to talk a believer out of god. As they’ll carefully point out to you, it’s not a question of who Reagan really was, it’s how he’s perceived. Just as it’s not a question of whether or not god exists, it’s faith that counts. (“Keep the faith, baby; I’ve got no use for it.”)

That pushed me into thinking (again) of the tenacious hold believers have on, especially, the American body politic. What keeps fueling that?

More bells!

Money. If you have a product to sell, you don’t want the person who needs your product, you want a customer who believes in your product. You need a customer to buy your product regardless of what it really does. You want to sell the perception of your product, not the function. I’m an Apple person; you’ll never squeeze me into a PC. You want your customer to have faith in your product.

The last thing you want is a skeptic, a doubting Thomas. What you strive for, therefore, is as large a body of true believers as you can find. It makes no difference what they believe in; what you want is, not what they believe in, but their capacity to believe. If they believe in one thing, they’re much more likely to accept something else on faith, too. Especially, if the first belief system endorses the second subject.

Functionally, this leads to anyone with a product (capitalism, anyone?) to sell to co-opting whoever leads the local belief system, which in America’s case means sucking up to the priests of the children of Abraham, Christians, in particular. Fortunately, those who have a product to sell, have the same goals as the leaders of the faith: money, power, young girls or boys. The usual stuff. It solves the problem of getting into bed together if you’re all in the same bed to start with. Also fortunately, both the leaders of the faith and those with a product to sell know that the belief is in a sham, which makes it doubly easy for them to work together: no one has to disguise their true intent.

If you’d like, you can think of belief systems—religions—as marketing schemes. Hey, they work.


Which brings me to shopping. People like to buy things. People like to go shopping. What for is less important than the act of shopping. People are perfectly happy to go shopping with nothing in mind that they’re looking for; they’re simply going shopping. Often as not, they’ll end out buying something they don’t need, just to justify the act of shopping. In fact, most of what they/we buy is unnecessary.

Why do we continually need the new object? Is the new that much better than the old?

I would posit that the act of buying is the reaffirmation of one’s faith; it’s an expression of kinship with one’s neighbors. It’s an expression of the herd instinct. One wants to be like everyone else; and, if everyone else is shopping, then shopping you’ll go. If everyone is going to church, then you’ll go to church. If everyone at your church is buying product X, then you’ll buy product X, too. If I’m selling product X, I want to get endorsed by that church and as many churches as I can. God says buy me. I want to tap into that herd instinct. I want my product to be above reproach. I want my product endorsed by God.

Welcome to the American political scheme.

I wouldn’t offhand say that American politics and religion walk hand-in-hand; I’d say it’s more a combination of hand-in-pocketbook and hand-in-pants. This is where the “different stokes” come in. Did the earth move for you, too?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Fuel On the Fire

Science on

“Sorry, vegans: Eating meat and cooking food made us human: High caloric intake enabled brains of our prehuman ancestors to grow dramatically”

By Christopher Wanjek

“The new studies demonstrate, respectively, that it would have been biologically implausible for humans to evolve such a large brain on a raw, vegan diet and that meat-eating was a crucial element of human evolution at least 1 million years before the dawn of humankind.”

The last part of this statement reflects the paleo-anemia reported upon earlier. The first part, the implausibility, is from a study at the University of Rio de Janeiro. Wanjek combined the two results for an appraisal of the findings.

I find it interesting that these reports consistently come out, yet there is so much resistance to the hypothesis that people stood up to carry weapons (and, subsequently, food).

The article also reports:  “Humans have exceptionally large, neuron-rich brains for our body size, while gorillas — three times more massive than humans — have smaller brains and three times fewer neurons. Why?

“The answer, it seems, is the gorillas' raw, vegan diet (devoid of animal protein), which requires hours upon hours of eating only plants to provide enough calories to support their mass.”

I know, I know; everyone wants to be a gentle vegetarian like, say, Hitler, but the truth is, it’s ruthless meat eaters like the Dali Lama who have led the species out of the jungle.

The good news is, we’re pretty sure, now, that the first restaurant was a barbecue hut.

Where are the cars?

This is Khovd, Mongolia, in the Altai Mountains, courtesy of Google Earth. Those little mushrooms down there? They’re yurts.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sail on

"Ancient Mariners: Did Neanderthals Sail to Mediterranean?"
Yahoo News 11/17/12

“For instance, stone artifacts on the southern Ionian Islands hint at human sites there as early as 110,000 years ago. Investigators have also recovered quartz hand-axs, three-sided picks and stone cleavers from Crete that may date back about 170,000 years ago. The distance of Crete about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the mainland would have made such a sea voyage no small feat.

“The exceedingly old age of these artifacts suggests the seafarers who made them might not even been modern humans, who originated between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Instead, they might have been Neanderthals or perhaps even Homo erectus.”

I’m throwing this in as a reminder of my hypothesis—of which you need no reminder—that we descended from the trees to the water’s edge some millions of years ago, where we still live. I regularly toss in the most recent archeological finds, which—surprise, surprise—never contradict that theory; au contraire, they always line up in support. As if they had a choice.

Needless-to-say, living by the water doesn’t mean making boats, but it sure makes making them easier. I would imagine that rafts came shortly after the knot. I would suspect that they came into being long before modern humans. Evidence from Flores and Australia support the findings from Crete, that people were mariners prior to modern humans.

I’m just saying…

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Push 'Em Back, Way Back

Popular Archeology
Vol. 8 September 2012
“Stone-Tipped Spears Used Much Earlier Than Thought, Say Researchers”

“A University of Toronto-led team of anthropologists has found evidence that human ancestors used stone-tipped weapons for hunting 500,000 years ago - 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.”

For those of you counting, that’s a 40% increase in time span. The points they are showing are sophisticated, thin, well-made ones. This is not likely a new technology. Bearing in mind that, given the reality of the bell curve, fossil finds are most likely to come from near the top of the curve, not an end. That holds true no matter how far back you find the paleo-remains. It means, for example, that one can hypothesize an incipient date for such hafted-weapons (which is what they’re talking about) no less that 200,000 years previous to this new date of 500,000 BCE, and most likely much earlier. If the incipient date were pushed back to 1,000,000 years BCE, it would not be surprising.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Without a Paddle

Obsessions. I’ve been watching too many documentaries. A lot of religious stuff; my obsession. It’s what you get for being a preacher. How does one get to be a preacher, you might ask? It’s a calling. You don’t get to be anything; you’re what you’re called to be.

Who does the calling? That’s open to conjecture.

Let me define religion: a myth-based system through which one interprets one’s existence/experiences. Religions do many different things, but that’s the core of what they are; everything hinges around that, the myth system. This is true of all religions; it’s what defines them. It’s not to be confused with the religion invoked when asked, “What do you believe?” That’s another use of the word, related but not identical. If one practices a religion, i.e. believes in that religion, it means they use the precepts of that religion to make sense of their experiences.

My observation is that the world divides over the definition of “religion.” The fight is over whether or not they are myth systems. If one is a believer, one has to admit to the possibility that at least one religion could not be a myth system: theirs.

Yet, all religions, by their nature, are myth systems; they cannot not be. What is not understood here is that the origins of a myth system have no bearing on the functioning of the system. There can be no true or accurate beginning of a myth system, even if it’s history is well documented. The origins have nothing to do with the effect of a myth or how it functions as an organizational apparatus. Hence, the search for the “historical Jesus” is  a Sisyphussian battle, one that can never be won. It’s an entire industry built around searching for an chimera. (And they take it and themselves so seriously. On the other hand, it’s always fun to see the Emperor naked.)

What I find fascinating is that the trapped have no idea they are trapped. It’s the Stockholm syndrome writ large, one comes to agree with one’s captors. Think of the slaves. No, not the Christian slaves, the black ones, the guys from Africa. They were more than happy to adopt the faith of their oppressors. Glory hallelujah! Have to this day. Once you’re inside a faith, you can’t see out. Which is only reasonable because, if you could see out, you might lose your faith, and then where would you be? Yes, and without a paddle.

What if one’s faith is in a vague, holy spirit that permeates the Universe with, with, with… whatever? What if? So…, what if? How about, “Don’t you believe in something bigger than you? Bigger than us?”

Are those beliefs or are they a reason to wear flowers in one’s and burn incense? Maybe take a sweat with some Native Americans; boy, do they have a myth system. There is another abiding quest: to make the vision of god so sophisticated that it can’t be disputed. The ages have been filled with ever more sophisticated reasoning as to what god could be like; only those doing the more and more clever reasoning, evidently, don’t understand that the increasing sophistication of a myth doesn’t make it less of a myth. Myths are like pregnancies: they either are or they aren’t myths. There’s no such a thing as a three-month myth or a third-term myth; a myth is a myth, they’re sort of clean that way.

What have I learned from those documentaries? That we’re never going to dent a believer. They either have to have their own catharsis or die of old age or from falling off the edge of the Earth. It could happen, you know.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Guilty As Charged

The attacker of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killer of six, Jared Loughner, was sentenced to life imprisonment today. The judge commented that this was only the finalization of the legal proceedings, the emotions would, perhaps, never heal. Juxtapose this alongside the Anders Breivik verdict in Norway where Breivik killed seventy-seven people. He was found guilty, as well. For reasons I find inexplicable, it was important for the Norwegians to find him guilty rather than insane.

Their cases are extreme, but they highlight the problems of dealing with crime; beginning, of course, with the very definition of crime. Suffice it to say that crime is not a fixed commodity unassailable and invariable from society to society, but rather a consensual process of a people or a polity. Crime in a totalitarian state is very different from crime in a tribal society. What one does about crime differs widely depending on where one places the origins of crime and what one wants to accomplish when dealing with crime and criminals.

For sake of argument, let’s define “crime” as an infraction of the Basic Rule, aka the Golden Rule: someone does something to someone that that person didn’t want done to them. Simple enough, if difficult to translate into practicality. A crime is an injury to another person (which, by extension, covers the environment). Despite the complexities of the law, we all have a basic understand of right and wrong within the context of our culture. We are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, which is shaped by our environment.

I’m not here to argue, today, about what constitutes a crime, though; I’m more concerned with how we react to crime as a culture, as a people. The first thing to be decided is what one (or we) wants to accomplish when confronting crime and its perpetrators. The simplest desire and the route we have chosen for the most part is revenge, punishment. Crime is seen as an individual decision and that one should suffer commensurate with one’s offense. Or more or less, depending on one’s station in life. It’s most clearly expressed in the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth philosophy. It’s easy to understand and satisfies that longing for revenge, for getting even. And since one can’t get even with one’s boss or the policeman or the bureaucrat, one can at least send some bastard to the hole for life. Take that, you scoundrel!

If you’ve been wronged, wanting pay-back is easy to fathom.

But one might have other goals. If the crime didn’t happen to you, getting even might not be so important. Revenge might not be as important as protection. “I’m sorry that it happened to you, but I don’t want it to happen to me. In fact, I’m more concerned with it not happening to me than I am with your getting revenge.”

That’s a whole different ball game, focusing on protecting one’s self against crime, rather than on punishing the criminal. If one looks at crime as a problem to be solved, not a behavior to be punished, one will approach it entirely differently.

To be sure, the reigning paradigm for all history has been that people should be punished, not only for their transgressions, but to scare the shit out of them so they won’t do it again. Setting aside whether or not people should be punished for their sins, the question is begged, is the scaring the shit out of people effective? One could ask that in the larger scale; since crime has historically gone down through the centuries, does that mean people are more frightened of punishment now, or did crime go down for other reasons? It doesn’t seem that the punishments of today are particularly worse than the punishments of, say a thousand years ago; and, if what I read of how they did things in those days is true, then things, water-boarding excepted, etc., are better today than the rack or burning by fire, etc. Besides that, I think they’ve done more than enough studies to understand that crime and punishment aren’t as interdependent as one would think. Other than punishment creates crime; this they know. If one wants to create a criminal class, America has written the textbook on how to do it. Punishment is not such a good deterrent but it’s an effective generator of crime.

This is where the dilemma of dealing with criminals comes in: how much crime is one willing to suffer to be able to extract revenge? How important to one is the ability to extract revenge? This is not a trivial question, because every degree of punishment that society metes out is returned ten-fold. Vengeance is very expensive. Punishment has an enormous trickle-down effect.

Ultimately, how one deals with crime revolves around the arcane and oft misunderstood subject of freewill: whether one subscribes to it or not. In simple form, it says that, if there is freewill, punishment is morally acceptable, even if not effective: it satisfies moral indignation. On the other hand, if there’s not freewill, punishment will never be successful in the long run nor effective in the short. Furthermore, it finds punishment immoral. (How can one be punished for something over which they have no control?)

The question of freewill hinges on how one understands the thinking process to take place. One school claims that all thinking is done on a subconscious level not currently available to human understanding. The other school, well, the other school doesn’t know how thinking actually works, but they’re quite sure they do it.

(Sam Harris has an interesting exercise he likes to do with audiences to explain the subconscious nature of thought. He asks everyone to imagine some famous person in their mind. Got one? Good. Then he asks, why that person? Why did you think of that person, rather than someone else? How did you decide which image to draw up from your memory bank?)

The trap people fall into is conflating words with thinking. Because much of thinking is translated into words, we tend to think that the arrival of words in our consciousness is the result of conscious choice, as if we looked at all the synonyms and chose the one closest to our needs, rather than simply grasping the first word to come out of the air. If we had to actually choose the words that make up our sentences by selecting them one-by-one from known vocabulary lists, we’d never be able to talk and thinking would take forever. Thinking, like talking, is done without conscious intervention. When one sits around scratching one’s head waiting for an answer, that’s exactly what one is doing, waiting for an answer; and the answer, when it comes, simply pops into one’s head without warning. Where was the thinking? Deep, deep down where only elves can see it. Not us.

And should you wonder, I’d argue that all creatures think, words or not. I’d also argue that none of us knows how we do it.

Breivik and Loughner, are they guilty? They certainly did what they were accused of. Were they insane? That’s as sticky a wicket as any other, what’s “insane”? Their actions certainly weren’t helpful and they definitely contradicted the Basic Rule and they probably need careful monitoring for the rest of their lives, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time arguing about definitions. I’d get right on to the practical questions of how to house, feed, and make use of them for the rest of their born days. But vengeance? I’d give that a pass. Too expensive and doesn’t work. And, you know, it doesn’t even feel that good.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

God of the Gaps

Professor Winston; I didn’t get the rest of his name. The show was a BBC production, The Story of God: The God of the Gaps. Pr. Winston was looking at the question of god from the viewpoint that he’d (God) been relegated to the gaps in scientific knowledge; which was a curious argument for Winston to take as he is an avowed believer in God. Although perhaps not so strange as he also presented himself as a firm Darwinist and follower of orthodox science; he was no starry-eyed dreamer. Winston has a tooth-brush mustache à la Groucho Marx and shares his Judaism. Other than that he seemed less of a wit and more kind.

Winston’s prime argument, a common one, is that people have two sides—spiritual and rational—and that they serve different human needs. All the while, mind you, demonstrating how the concept of god has withered through the centuries to be left only with this vague spiritualism of which he speaks. All fine and good, but he never got around to defining what this spiritual need is. He finished by pointing out that scientists don’t know what came before the Big Bang and religious folk don’t know what God is like, so they are both founded on uncertainty.

Well, yeah, sort of. No.

For one thing, in the end he compared the two views anyway; he didn’t leave them to their separate fields. He tacitly acknowledged that religion does concern itself with the knowable, not just the imaginary; and that where the two collide, religion disappears. Quite why he wants to hang onto the thread of religion is not examined.

Along the way he visited a statistician, who, in theory, could give a statistical basis as to whether or not God exists; but it turn out, could only give a statistical basis for what one thought about God, not about the likelihood of God itself. This fellow had an algorithm into which he inserted variables of what one thought about likely proofs for a god being correct. Winston, for example, thought that the existence of love counted in favor of the likelihood of their being a god. Winston had a couple assumptions like that; so, according to his beliefs, there was a 96% chance of there being a god. How that was anything other than confirming what he already told us—that he believed in God—was not explained; but it seemed to have been inserted into the film as positive evidence for the likelihood of there being a god. In the category of “Well, we don’t have any stronger evidence, so, we’ll go with the belief algorithm.” Winston believes strongly that there is a god and he’s a reasonable and pleasant enough fellow, so there must be something to it, right? But is that scientific?

If nothing else, it’s a superficial understanding of love. Thinking that love is anything other than an evolutionarily evolved emotion belies either wishful or limited thinking. Winston didn’t explain how attachments formed by other animals are categorically different than human attachments; he simply assumed so. Isn’t that a form of reverse-anthropomorphism, thinking that humans are categorically different from other different animals? Is it logical to think that our increased brain capacity has led to new types of emotions? Is it our intellectual capacity which governs what moves us emotionally; and that animals without our capacity don’t have our emotions, that our emotions evolved out of our intellect? Is it reasonable to base one’s belief in a god on a single emotion?

Winston never examined why he chose love as evidence for God anymore than, say, anger or hunger or frustration. Nor did he explain where love came into the chain of existence and why. Is love here to prove that there’s a god, or is there a practical side to love?

I don’t know; to me it just seems silly. All that time and effort put into making a documentary where in the end a guy shrugs his shoulders and says, “I think there’s a god because I want there to be a god.” I just don’t find that a convincing argument, no matter how nice a guy is that makes it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

I'll Bet Pascal's Wrong

Pascal’s Wager

Wikipedia: “It posits that there's more to be gained from wagering on the existence of God than from atheism, and that a rational person should live as though God exists, even though the truth of the matter cannot actually be known.”

I’ve heard this put forth many times, most recently on a BBC documentary on the “god of the gaps.” What I’ve never heard anyone put forth is the logical fallacy; instead, it’s held up as example of the logic of believing in a god.

What Wikipedia fails to mention is that there is an unmentioned assumption here. The assumption is that not believing in a god would have negative consequences. That’s why Pascal thought it best to believe in a god, because he thought that any god—at least his god—would be really pissed off if you didn’t believe in him (it?) and make you suffer accordingly; but there’s no reason to assume that, if there’s a god, it would care at all what people thought of it. Pascal’s Wager only works if the god is a Christian god, but that’s never brought up.

At the very least, if anyone runs the Pascal Wager by you, you can cross them off your list for thinking things through. Pascal Schmascal.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Once More With Feeling

Hear me out; I may be onto something.

Maybe it’s all a matter of semantics, of word choice.

The problem is in the phrase “natural selection”; it implies choice. In people’s minds it implies that the selecting being done is being done by the individual members of the species, and that it’s that selecting which affects the direction of evolution; i.e. successful females get together with successful males (of whatever species), and they breed successful offspring which informs the direction of their evolution.

No. There are two way to make selections: one is by choice; and the other is by attrition. Natural selection is of the second variety: those who are left standing at the end are those who are chosen. We think of natural selection as of the first kind, but in truth, it’s of the second.

Natural selection happens at the species, not the individual, level. Natural selection doesn’t care how successful any individual is; it only cares whether or not the individual’s genes give rise to successful generations. It only cares what the individual contributes to the gene pool, not its individual success. All those pecking orders and strict animal hierarchies have nothing to do with mating the best specimens; they’re simply ways of A) insuring the shuffling of genes, and B) maintaining social order within the species.

It is not in a species’ interest to keep only its best specimens alive; it’s best interests are to keep as many of its members alive as possible.

Ergo, the only natural selection being done is a matter of success: either a mutation has it or it doesn’t. And really, that’s no selection at all; it’s dumb luck.

Think of it this way. Igor the cowherd was on the bottom rung of the ladder. He wasn’t the brightest of candles, was prone to disease, and spent a lot of his life alone with his cows in the mountains. This was a very, very long time ago. Before they’d brought those cows to Europe; they were still hanging around the Caucasus. Igor also had a penchant for barley beer and didn’t look much to the future.

Igor hooked up with Priscilla who was, perhaps, a little slow on the uptake and had trouble walking in a straight line, but she was happy enough with the lone cowherd. Their life would not be remarkable; they brought three children into the world before Igor was kicked in the head by a cow and killed. Alas. The only thing unusual was a small mutation in Igor’s constitution. Everyone at the time was lactose intolerant. That’s the usual human condition; it takes living with cows and drinking their milk for millennia before chance provides a lactose-tolerance mutation. Wouldn’t you know it, that mutation happened to Igor.

It didn’t, of course, help Igor—he was kicked to death at a young age—but two of his three children inherited the gene. It didn’t make a big difference in their life, either, though they did tolerate dairy products better than their kin. It wasn’t a huge change, but, considering their livelihood, it would eventually have a big impact on their culture. Those children who inherited the new gene did a little better than their neighbors. It was a useful gene and it slowly got passed around to most everyone in the tribe. Those who had it had a better survival rate than those who didn’t.

The king’s family? They never got the gene and were wiped out some years later in a coup. Alas.

And that’s how natural selection works. No one ever selected Igor’s family to be the hope of the future, other than chance. No one even noticed that it was Igor’s descendants who changed their people forever. Who would have imagined? No one, and no one did.