Archive for January, 2011


Sunday, January 30th, 2011

A chalk-art "snapshot" of uncle "TieCeratops" (with thanks to Barb for the title!)

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History”, James M. McPherson, Alan Brinkley, General Editors.

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

“America’s Greatest Historians Examine Thirty-One Uncelebrated Days That Changed the Course of History”

When I’m not reading about science, I bend toward history.  Generally, that means early human history (really early).  But with the political temperature rising, it seems, over the last few years, I have also been working on my knowledge of American history.  Boy, is there a lot I didn’t know.  Of course, who knows how much of what I was taught in public school has simply been lost along the way.  Still, with so many agitated Americans holding up copies of The Constitution, and our present “global” awareness that brings new corners of the world to our attention every day, it seems a good time to re-acquaint ourselves with our own country.

This is a good book for such a quest, and a nice “next step” from “America’s Beginnings” that I reviewed two weeks ago (on this blog).  As in that book, this one takes single events from our development as a nation and invites an historian to go into detail on that event.  The collection is diverse, covering developments in government, science, entertainment and culture.  What we might lose in terms of a single narrative history we gain in the luxury of depth.

Each of us will find, I’m certain, certain chapters more engaging than others, but each of them seemed worthy of reading.

I won’t go into detail about the 31 events described in this book, but I will tell you the general impression it gave me.  Our “American” character has been with us from the beginning in a stew of heedless profiteering and social conscience.  In this teeming mix individuals and movements have arisen that have altered the trajectory of our progress, often for the good, but not always.

Consider the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that was steadily gutted of it’s intended meaning and power for a generation after it was enacted, only to be gradually restored by another generation and then, in more recent history, made the basis for enshrining in law our changing sense of fairness regarding the rights of women, minorities and today the rights of gays to serve openly in the U.S. Military.

Just like the theories of science, the United States is not a fixed idea or a settled matter, and is ever evolving and adapting to changing technologies, conditions, political trends and social movements.  This is good to understand in the midst of so many who think they have an idea of a point in our past that we must “return to”.  As “Days of Destiny” makes abundantly clear, there is no going back in history.  There is only the present where we the living play our roles in the future destiny of our country.

It’s a good read, with something for everyone.  I feel much better for knowing more about the history of the women’s rights movements, the real movers and shakers of Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, the “Great Awakening” and twenty-eight other “Days of Destiny”.

t.n.s.r. bob

From the Publisher’s website:
“America’s greatest historians examine thirty-one uncelebrated days that changed the course of history There are moments in American history when something old ends and something new begins. These are the days of destiny. We asked some of the most respected (and best-selling) historians of our time to choose specific days on which American history turned. Their responses make up the month’s worth of essays included in this volume. Some chose wars and battles, politics and presidents; others found answers in less well-known areas of historical study: the Great Awakening of the 1740s, the Indian Wars of the 1870s, the plight of working women at the turn of the twentieth century, the countercultural efflorescence of the late 1960s. In Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History, the Society of American Historians brings you thirty-one engaging narratives, each illuminating with crisp prose and unparalleled scholarship an event that profoundly shaped the nation and world in which we live in. From King Philip’s 1675 parley with white colonial officials to the 1973 research conference at which the biotechnology revolution was announced, these vignettes will transport you to places and introduce you to people who have made a continuing difference in the history of America.”

SERMON: “An Evolution Dialogue” By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Recently I got a note from someone I’d known for some time.  I assumed he’d just taken a look at this blog, and e-mailed me to confirm that I was a “believer” in Evolution.  I answered in the affirmative, and the following (electronic) dialog began.  I decided to save the text as it progressed, and now want to share it with you.  I’ll use the name JOE for the questioner, and BOB for myself.

(NOTE: I have left the text un-edited, removing only the names).

JOE:  I would like to discuss the issue.

It is my understanding that mutations are mostly bad in ratio to good positive ones when you are talking about human species. The ratio is estimated at 100 to 1 bad vs good. If that is so, then how come the human is so fantastically made? Why don’t we look like freaky man. Where the results from all the bad mutations go when only 1/100 is positive. This is 1 of about a lot of questions I have regarding evolution. My intent with discussing this with you is not to create friction with you by anything written on PC. So i want you to know now, that i am seeking info on the subject. So don’t get mad at me during this OK :) ?

BOB: Sure.

I’d have to check the numbers, but accepting your ratio of “bad” to “good” mutations as correct (for humans and for all other animals), the reality is that there are vast stretches on our genome that are “junk”, or leftover DNA from our evolutionary past that is no longer “switched on” in our modern human development (though scientist’s caution that just because we don’t exactly know what they are doing there doesn’t make them junk). So when mutations occur in these areas, it has no impact on the viability of the organism. However, we are constantly enduring mutations in our active DNA, and sometimes these cause disorders from the mild to the severe, or cause death (in the womb or after).

The reality is that as amazing as our human bodies and minds are, we are not so fantastically made, but are a collection of mutations and adaptations that were “good enough” to work, some of which gave us enough of an advantage to survive better than other animals, and the bad ones weren’t so bad that we couldn’t live with them (for a good description of how badly engineered we are read “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus —

So some of us come out looking like “freaky man”. There are humans born with supernumerary (extra) nipples, for example, or other non-life-threatening genetic throwbacks to our more primitive past. Our lower backs go bad because we’re still adapting to walking upright with the body plan of a fish, we still have tailbones, and our hiccup reflex seems to be a leftover of our amphibian past (did you know we grow a coat of fur in the womb that is re-absorbed before birth — but not always!?).

Other evidence of this is the fact that half of our body’s cellular weight is bacteria, and only about 6% of the genes in our body are actually human, the rest are bacterial and viral (so maybe we have to call them “human” too…I wonder). Yikes! We are walking storehouses of the evidence of our evolutionary past.

There are lots of good books that cover the most current understandings of human evolution that even a guy like me can understand (you could look through the REVIEWS on my blog).

I think what happens is a lot of folks have a limited or incorrect understanding about what the theory of evolution does and does not say (both on the “believer” and “non-believer” side, I might add). Obviously I love talking about this stuff.

So there’s maybe question one of the many…maybe!

JOE: Dang it i can’t type today… sorry Bob

Ok, then where did the original biological “soup” that all this began with come from? I understand the mutation process as it applies on going if you will. I know that an evolving action takes place in life, but i find it almost entirely unbelievable that life forms so complex CAN be mutated into being without a design blueprint for each species. There had to be a foreknowledge from original begins to the end product.

BOB: Don’t sweat it: who knows how many typos I’ll create here…

The theory of evolution only deals with the development of life once it got started, so it doesn’t address the “soup” you’re talking about. That’s another field (and another can of worms).

However, there’s a lot of science trying to figure out just how things did get started. The major component is liquid water and the chemicals and elements that the earth acquired (over millions of years) through the impacts of objects from space. There have been some experiments where scientists have attempted to recreate the original “soup”, and zap it with some electricity (to mimic lighting strikes) and have actually produced “life” (in a very slimy, rudimentary form). But this is still a very open area of study and conjecture.

What is really interesting is that you consider a “natural” cause (for which there is plentiful evidence) to be more incredible to believe than a “supernatural” one (for which there is no evidence). Of course you’re not alone in that, but if you can take a step back and look at the logic of it: “Because we do not (yet) know how life on earth began, therefore God must have created it” represents an incredible leap of logic.

Personally, a major component of my being able to grasp the idea of all of this complicated life emerging from such a simple photo-chemical reaction was coming to an understanding of the sheer depth of geologic time. If you think the earth has only been here for 6,000 years, then of course evolution’s a fairly ridiculous concept to embrace. But once you understand the billions of years that all of this took to come into being (and that more than half of that time passed BEFORE the first SUCCESSFUL life finally “caught on” on earth), it becomes not only understandable, but pretty interesting.

The reality is that nothing about life on earth indicates any foreknowledge or any supernatural action. All life forms are descended from earlier life forms, and each one carries in both its structure and DNA the leftovers and hints of what it once was (for this read Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”). Now some believers in God (that also accept science) take the view that God got the process started and worked THROUGH evolution. But as one early scientist pointed out, there is nothing in the evidence of life on earth that REQUIRES the intervention of God for an explanation of its existence.

(Good writers on that subject are Richard Dawkins — on the science side — and Christopher Hitchens — more on the cultural/philosophical/religious side).

I’ll attach a version of the timeline I used in my “Darwin” program that shows where we humans came into the picture. The third image from the left shows when the very first multi-cellular organisms show up in the fossil record. You’ll see it took a LONG TIME before anything more complex showed up, but once it did, things started happening (relatively) fast. (And there have been some recent surprising discoveries about just how quickly populations can change).

An evolutionary timeline using three 8-foot 2x4 boards.

Religion was our first science, really. But the truth is that over the last couple of hundred years, actual scientific discovery has gradually replaced belief with evidence. Evolution makes no claim as to whether or not God exists, it only demonstrates that life could have developed through completely natural means.

JOE: So do you believe God exist and started life and the evolution process – or multiplication of single cells as i see it, rather than the word evolution- is the truth?
I just have real hard time believing that we came from slime plus time, no matter how long time has been. I feel it is a bigger stretch that this is the truth than to believe that God created man.
When does evolution claim mankind started reproducing by conception through sexual means vs. from the fish? Or do they still believe they do?

BOB:  The first fossil evidence for sexual reproduction goes back over 1 billion years…long before fish or humans, so mankind has always reproduced sexually — we inherited that trait from our pre-human ancestors.  Unless you mean internal conception as opposed to spraying sperm over eggs that are floating at the bottom of the stream…I’d have to look that up.  But there was a long stretch of evolution between our fishy past and mammalian, modern us.

I don’t believe there is a god.  I consider the idea of god a product of human consciousness.  I think it was “slime plus time”, because that’s what the evidence suggests.  Plus, there is plenty of evidence that humans are subject to a whole range of irrational beliefs, the belief in god chief among them (Heck, I believed it for a long time myself — I was even a missionary smuggling stuff to Christians behind the Iron Curtain once!).

Yep, we live in a very interesting universe, but not one that cares one way or the other.  Evolution is simply a scientific description of phenomena and evidence — it’s not a competing “force” or personality.

JOE: You are a smart man Bob. We disagree about the existence of God but it is interesting information to me how people view these issues.

Are you educated in the sciences or is it your own personal studies through the years. I didn’t know you were a missionary at all. What turned you from our belief in God, if I may ask. You don’t have to answer of course.

BOB: I guess I’m self-educated through following my interests, working with scientists, talking with them, and a lot of reading.

Same “need to know” that made me burn a hole right through my Christianity back in ’87. Just kept asking questions and one day found myself popped out the other side of it. Happens

JOE: I don’t follow the last paragraph.

BOB:  I was referring to the first paragraph (but not very well or clearly), meaning that it seems that I had (have) a “need to know”, or at least a need to understand why I believe what I believe, and that led me not to questioning, really, but to try to understand my faith. So I ended up reading a lot of C.S. Lewis and the like. Last book I read as a Christian was “Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus” by Norman Parrin — turned out to be a pivotal book in my declension (or movement away from) from faith.

JOE: My goodness how can one book do that? Sorry to hear it really.

Faith is hard to hang on to, but I find it is worth it seeing as if the Bible is true, nothing in life is worth separation from eternity in paradise. Hell is no place i want to spend forever in…. with no escape. I am certainly not the model of a good Christian but i know what i believe. If you got saved by Christ at some point in your life, I believe you can’t change that unless you have a true apostate heart.

I find it hard you would wind up hating God.

hard to believe above last line.

BOB: That’s the thing: I don’t hate God.  I don’t think I have a single believing friend that can understand my experience in any other way than thinking it of as “backsliding”, or reacting against the authority of God that I know to be true, but am rebelling against.  How can I be angry at a God that doesn’t exist except in the imaginations of men?

The reality is that religious belief is a kind of spell that has to break before one can see what’s on the other side (which is, well, reality).  I appreciate the sincerity of your concern regarding eternal damnation, but as Monica Hesse put it in a Washington Post article about Atheists: “Most of them have been told, at one point or another, that they are going to hell, which, when you think about it, is a fairly pointless threat to an atheist, like warning someone that you’re sending them to Narnia.”

I agree with Stephen Hawking, who compares consciousness to a computer program: when the computer dies, the programs ceases, that’s it.  The voice I always took to be God or Jesus turns out to be the voice of my own consciousness, right here in my little brain.  That’s why I work to make the most of my life now, and do what I can to make life better for my fellow humans now.  Religion is a fairly inefficient help to humans, I think, overall.

JOE: It is kind of hard to hate what you don’t believe exist :)

I understand your points and still believe you are going to heaven. There has to be more to this existence of outer space, life on earth. What force, since you are obviously scientific in thought, outer space in its perfect place to support life.


Final thought:  There is much more to our human beliefs than reason and evidence.  The more we learn about ourselves and our brains, the more we see that the way in which our minds function pretty much set us up for belief, where our (more recently-evolved) higher reasoning faculties are often placed in the service of the maintenance of those beliefs.  In order to move beyond the spell of belief we are actually working against some fairly ancient and deeply-imbedded habits of our consciousness.  It can be done, of course, but I do not discount the disquieting effects that such “tectonic” movements of the mind can carry in their wake (awakening to an indifferent universe can make for a chilly dawn, indeed).

There’s a reason that popular surveys claim a measurable “happiness effect” of belief in powers greater than ourselves (though it looks like this effect is mostly connected to the greater satisfaction of our “social primate” needs that comes from being a part of a meaningful “community”.  See:

The fact that most humans do believe in a range of irrational things only proves that humans believe in irrational things, it does not prove the existence of the fanciful.  But, of course, as I’ve said before: life goes on regardless of what we believe about it, and I find myself tempted to give less attention to trying to figuring it all out and more to making the most of the time I have in this life of mine.  But then, trying to figure things out is one of the things us clever primates find joy in doing.  So…

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

This week I painted a curb-to-curb crack in the street, from which this fish escaped. I titled the piece "Salmon Villa".

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Top 10 Myths About Evolution” by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan.

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Biographical material from the publisher’s website:

“Cameron M. Smith, Ph.D. (Portland, OR) is an adjunct faculty associate at Portland State University’s department of anthropology and a popular science writer who has published articles in Scientific American MIND, Archaeology, Playboy, Spaceflight, Skeptical Inquirer, The Writer, and other publications.

Charles Sullivan (Portland, OR) has graduate degrees in philosophy and English and is an adjunct faculty member in Portland Community College’s writing department. He has published articles with Cameron M. Smith in Playboy, Skeptical Inquirer, and The Writer.”

How could I pass up such an appealing little book that offered such a concise summation of the most common mis-perceptions about evolution?  Well, I couldn’t.  Didn’t even try.  And although I found myself thinking that I’ve read better writing on the subject (and better dissections of what the Theory of Evolution is really all about), this book soon grew on me.  My affection for it is based — at least in part — upon the authors’ unflinching approach to their mission: stripping bare the hobby-horse chargers that are often sent in to battle the flesh and blood steeds of science.

Mythology is endemic and persistent among us humans, this much is clear.  But as this book takes on the most popular myths regarding evolution, one by one, one of the things that is revealed is just how far back in history some of these myths go.  One would easily conclude (were he or she to take humans to be consistently rational creatures) that once the scientific evidence began to mount that religion’s long hold on historical and scientific veracity was built upon nothing but made-up stories, people would drop the mythology and accept the evidence.  We all know this is not what has occurred.  In fact, resistance to science is alive and well (and some days seems to be increasing) in our own time.

Now the authors make it clear that science and evolution have nothing to say on the matter of the existence of god or any supernatural force.  However, because so many of the attacks on reason, science and the Theory of Evolution are based in religious belief, one can’t defend science without disturbing religion.  And so it goes here, especially in the final chapters that deal with the 8th, 9th and 10th myths (“Creationism Disproves Evolution”, “Intelligent Design is Science” and “Evolution is Immoral”).

On the whole, I can recommend this short book as a good primer on what evolution actually does and does not say about life on Earth.  And to tempt you a bit more, let me list the remaining 7 myths not mentioned so far: 1: Survival of the Fittest; 2: It’s Just a Theory; 3: The Ladder of Progress; 4: The Missing Link; 5: Evolution is Random; 6: People Come from Monkeys; 7: Nature’s Perfect Balance.

Happy reading!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “March of the Humans” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

I think that one of the most difficult notions to dislodge from our brain is this one of a steady progression of life over time.  Perhaps without even realizing it (even among those that accept evolution) many people think of evolution as being teleological, and even though most would not claim to actually believe that we humans were the point of evolution, they might nonetheless sense a certain inevitability in our arrival on the stage of the living.

As the dinosaurs died off, our ancestors came out from the shadows.

It was the well-known paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that expressed (based on his study of the now-famous Burgess Shale) the notion that a re-shuffling of the evolutionary deck would likely produce very different results:  “…if we could perform the great undoable thought experiment of “rewinding the tape of life” back to the Cambrian and “distributing the lottery tickets” at random a second time, the history of animals would follow an entirely different but equally “sensible” course that would almost surely not generate a humanoid creature with self-conscious intelligence.”   [ Simon Conway Morris and Stephen Jay Gould, “Showdown on the Burgess Shale,” Natural History magazine, 107 (10): 48-55. ]

The insidious idea of inevitability shows up in the way evolution is discussed in the popular press.  Today I was thinking about our human diet, and how many times we hear the word “design” when talking about what we think our optimum diet should be, as in “we weren’t designed for living on fast food”.  True enough, but then, we weren’t designed for anything.  We were naturally selected by blind forces.  But even that is incorrect, for the “forces” that, in the end, do the selecting (for life and for death) aren’t forces at all in the way we might think of them, for “they” possess no physical power, intention or intelligence.  In fact, they aren’t even a “they” (nor a “who”).  Again, just like the Theory of Evolution, neither evolution nor nature are actual discreet agents, but are the realities of the physical world in which we are born, live and die.  “Nature” and “Evolution” are terms we use to describe complex realities in order to organize our own ideas about them, study them and communicate our knowledge to other humans.

So, in a sense, it’s a perfectly natural mistake to make when talking about the timeline of evolution to think of it as an ever-progressing narrative, starting in one place and arriving in another.  Of course, from our perspective, it seems to have done just that — going from a barren planet to one teeming with life.  But I don’t think that’s close to what actually happened (and continues to happen) with, well, life.  Of course time does play out: year follows year (whether there is a human to define it thus or no), but life itself is more a teeming cauldron of reproduction, random mutation, population explosion and extinction that is too varied and vast to be seen as following a steady upward progression  toward any inevitable future.

For example, based on the evidence of human DNA it’s believed that the human population went through a rather severe population bottleneck in our very recent history (we may have been down to a few dozen individuals at one time).  But we bounced back.  Apparently, Cheetahs experienced a similar crisis, and the reduction in genetic diversity in that line of animals has led to frequent maladaptive mutations in modern Cheetahs.

The intelligent design folks get a lot of unearned mileage out of their assertions that we humans are too wonderfully “designed” to be the products of “random mutation” and “blind chance”.  Of course, they can only hold this view of humans (or any other life form, for that matter) through ignorance of the reality of our assembly process.  Now I won’t argue that it’s not a wonder that we are what we are (and that we come out of the reproduction process as well as we generally do), but to hold us up as examples of “intelligent design” becomes laughable once you know a bit of just how much we are a grab-bag of traits old and new held together by our dogged DNA’s blind drive to reproduce (see “KLUGE: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” — reviewed on this blog — for example).

So, to get back to our diet, we weren’t designed for any particular food.  We are omnivorous to a degree that nature selected for — meaning that those individuals that could survive on the widest variety of foods were more likely to live to reproduce.  What’s interesting to me is that through modern science, we are studying ourselves to find out what the optimum human diet really is.  This is fascinating, as we are trying to discover a standard that never existed and creating an ideal that I think will prove to be problematic due to the variation within human populations.  Think about that for a moment: we are writing an owners manual for a human body that started as a bacteria, evolved into a multicellular organism, then a sort of lungfish that eventually walked on land, then further evolved into a small, furry mammal, them a small primate, then a larger primate and finally (well, as far as you and I are concerned) an upright-walking hominid.  Buried in both our DNA and the architecture and organs of our body are the leftover, re-tooled and adapted remnants of every step of that evolution.  So our tricky backs, complicated internal plumbing, weak eyes and what-have you are the less-than-optimum evolutionary adaptations we live with today.

I remember seeing the popular (and rather amazing) film “March of the Penguins”.  Just about all that I could think about during that movie was how those poor penguin bastards found a way to make the most ridiculous (ridiculous — hell — horrific!) situation survivable.  It was painful to watch a huge penguin (with legs the length of a chicken drumstick) march mile after mile over snow and ice to the ocean to stuff him- (and her-) self with enough food to carry back to the poor parent left behind in howling icy winds caring for an egg that would freeze within seconds if left alone on the ice.  This is not intelligent design (it would be cruel, stupid design were it design at all), it is obstinate adaptation that allows those penguins to carry on in spite of nature.

But those penguins are just a rather stark example.  You and I are no different.  Two bones from our fish jaws migrated up to become our inner ear bones, we mutated away from our simian tails, the routes that some of our inner piping takes make sense only when you realize they developed originally in the bodies of fish (see Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” — reviewed on this blog).  You see, if an engineer were to look at us, he or she would go back to the drawing board and fix many of these problems.  But then that is the key difference between intelligent designers and the “forces” of evolution: we can design from scratch, evolution cannot.  Evolution has to “work” with what it has, and build upon it, adapt it, switch a gene off or switch it on again.  That’s it.   The creatures we are owe a lot to the creatures that developed during the Cambrian Explosion that Gould was studying: our modern forms were built, in a meandering, chancy, luck-filled way, upon the very first life forms that developed.

That we happened to evolve into the thinking, talking, walking hominids that we are is an event worth celebrating, but we can’t make more of it than it really is, at least in terms of science or religion.  We can (and should), however (or so I believe), make the most out of our remarkable opportunity to live out the lives we won from the evolutionary lottery!

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, January 16th, 2011

My pastel-on-asphalt idea of "street food": Red enchilada with an egg.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania” by Matthew Chapman.

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Matthew Chapman is an author, film director and screenwriter.  He is also the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin (yes, THAT Charles Darwin).  Chapman decided to travel to Dover, Pennsylvania to cover the famous Dover vs. Kitzmiller trial in which a Bush-appointed Federal Judge put a very large nail in the coffin of the Intelligent Design movement’s attempt to get Creationism into the science classroom (in this case, a 9th-grade biology class in Dover High School).

This book is a tremendous read about a great story, and the author spends the time it takes to introduce us to a rather large cast of characters while giving us a fast-moving day-to-day sense of the very long trial (that did, in fact, last 40 days and 40 nights!).

Though not for a moment taken in by the “Creationism in a Lab Coat” of Intelligent Design, Chapman develops a genuine affection for the varied lot of primates involved in the case.  There is something about his position as an observer (he was shooting a documentary as well) that gives him a certain freedom to comment and describe that a journalist or lawyer would not have.

His observations are piquant, witty and warm, and never mean.  He’s just the kind of person we might hope would judge any of us were he sitting in a jury box (which he does through most of the trial, since this is where most of the press sat in this non-jury process).

The Americans who populate this trial are people we all know and can relate to.  And though it offers a chilling glimpse into the kind of religion-fueled belligerent ignorance that drives a certain portion of our population, it also reveals the steady sense of fairness that people from a wide range of religious and social background can (and do) draw upon to reach consensus.

The final chapter is a sort of call to action against the forces that ignored both science and law in their attempt to bring religion into the science classroom and which are ever at work and show no signs of letting up.

This book is part procedural thriller, part popular science and part comedy.  But primarily it is the highly-engaging story of the people of a small town in Pennsylvania that became the center of a nation’s interest for 40 very long days and nights, after which a Republican Baptist Federal Judge — in the best traditions of American fairness — ruled against a school board that was trying to pull a fast one in a public high school.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Dangerous Monkeys” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

I’m trying to find a way to write about the recent shootings in Arizona without actually talking about them.  That’s because I find things like this difficult to really contemplate: the horror of them is a little too real to me.  Perhaps I empathize a little too clearly.

Well if I do, I also empathize with those who turn to religious beliefs to cope with (or, let’s face it — to shunt away) the sense of horror that such an act of human violence arouses.  When we consider that our brains use a contextual filing system, it makes sense to ask “where do we file something like this?”  And a workable answer (that we have evolved) could well be the “acts of the devil/acts of god” file (akin to putting it in an envelope and leaving it in somebody else’s in-box).  The fact is that there are realities that easily threaten to swamp our reason and capacity for understanding (I would put concepts like the age of the earth or the size of the universe in this category), and often it’s easier (or even necessary, perhaps) to put them in a corner and hide them behind a large potted plant.

Of course we know, deep inside, that nothing makes such realities go away, but coping strategies like these do often free up our conscious mind for dealing with the more immediate demands of our lives.

Dramatic events (like this most recent one in Tucson) reveal a lot about human behavior, and most of what is revealed comes from our reaction to the event.  In this case there is the outrage at the violence done to our sense of social cohesion that prompted so many (me among them) to denounce the inane blathering of the TEA Party types with their calls for a “second revolution”, “second amendment remedies” and Sarah Palin’s infamous “crosshairs map” (and the sadly predictable wheedling denial of actually  intending anything that they said).  Then there is the almost desperate search for the silver lining — a rush to create heroes out of the humans who acted from instincts more brave than the average (traits I also admire).

And then there is the slippery fish of the gunman and his motivations.

From the information available, it seems clear that he was slipping rather rapidly into debilitating mental illness.  The name that keeps cropping up is schizophrenia, and the rapid deterioration in the young man’s mental state reminded me of the tale my brother Ben tells in his book “Closing the Chasm: Letters from a Bi-polar Physician”.  My brother also had his first episodes of mania and depression in high school, and over time they increased in both frequency and intensity, aided by a dose of self-medication along the way.  In short — this is how these disorders blossom in us humans.

I suspect that a lot of people out there are thinking in terms of “good” versus “evil”, but being the materialist that I am I think more in terms of physical reality.  There is ever among us a certain percentage of humans that are socio- or psychopathic.  These are the people that frighten us the most, because these are the members of the tribe that don’t give a shit about fitting in with the group: they are immune to public shame or appeals to their need to belong.  We just look silly to them.  And then there are the percentage of the population that are prone to the other mental disorders such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

Before science, people had to find a way to make sense out of the “crazy” or “different” members of the tribe.  Some were seen to have spiritual powers, others as possessed by devils.  Of course, neither is true.  What we now know is that these individuals have faults in their wiring and/or brain chemistry.  There is no moral aspect to it at all, save for the morality of the thus-affected individual’s behaviors.  And there is no devil to blame, unless by that we mean the genetic mutation, or the gene-copying error (or other cause) that set the stage for the illness.

As anyone who knows mental illness will tell you, most people with mental disorders can manage their illness with medication and counseling.  Medication isn’t always efficient, and often has serious side-effects (that — one hopes — improving science will lessen over time), but it is effective.

As a social monkey, this shooting triggers a deep horror in me as I can’t help but contemplate the damage done by a bullet to a human brain.  For all that we are as a personality is contained in that organ, and contrary to what the religious might suppose, a materialistic, evolutionary view of the world makes individual lives more precious to one, not less so.  All the prayers in the world will not replace damaged brain tissue.

Of course we also know that the brain has a remarkable capacity to re-wire itself to work around damage, but still, I get a knot in my gut thinking about what lies ahead for the wounded Congresswoman.

Evil is what we call behavior that shocks, terrifies and bewilders us.  But it seems we should know by now that there are no other actors in the drama of life other than life itself: the faulty expression of a gene, a chemical imbalance, an inherited disorder.

Having said that, I do not think that any of this gives cover to the political blowhards of any stripe that will excuse themselves for any responsibility by hiding under the skirts of a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the gunman.  For our social brains (the ordered and the disordered) draw in ideas and tone from the general cultural and social atmosphere that surrounds us every day.  The religious zealot is reckless in his or her oratory because they believe that they are acting on directions from God, and that life will continue for we humans after death.  Such a preacher is not at all concerned with whether the listening believer that puts into violent action God’s dictates is similarly motivated or crazy as a loon.  As I’ve argued before, the big lie is that this sort of super-natural belief makes believers value life more than a non-believer, when in fact it seems to breed in them a callous disregard for the very real pain and suffering of those living in the here and now — the only life we KNOW we have.

To quote my own hymn: “Life is precious, life is good, but it’s not because God made it so”.  It is we humans who give life meaning, for good or evil.  We live in a natural world about which we have gained enormous understanding.  But it is also an incredibly complex and vast world which we can never completely control.  The very idea that we are not the masters of our destiny, or that there are humans who are running an entirely foreign operating system in their brains are, quite frankly, terrifying to contemplate.  All that we can do in the face of such frights is continue to work for reason, science and an appreciation for the reality that we all share in this short life.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, January 9th, 2011

A little post-holiday street humor.