Archive for February, 2011


Sunday, February 27th, 2011

I called this one "Tuxedo Rex", in honor of "Oscars" weekend.










A wider shot of "Tuxedo Rex" with just a couple of the many kids that stopped to look.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory” By J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page.

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

From the publisher’s website:

“J. M. Adovasio, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The First Americans (with Jake Page).

Olga Soffer, formerly a fashion industry insider, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Jake Page was the founding editor of Doubleday’s Natural History Press and subsequently its publisher, as well as editorial director of Natural History magazine and science editor of Smithsonian magazine. He has written or coauthored 43 books on the natural sciences, zoological topics, and Native American affairs, most recently Do Dogs Laugh? and Do Cats Hear with Their Feet? He and his wife live in northern Colorado.”

In the late 80’s, I read a book called “The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth” by (Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor).  It was very, very, very thick book.  But I was deeply interested in what these women had to say (I had just entered my post-Christian years, and was becoming aware of voices like Joseph Campbell as I attempted to connect with my own pre-Christian tribal mythology).  After I finished the book, I had the distinct feeling that it could have been about one-quarter the length it was.  I also had this thought: “Man, in another twenty years, the research in this field is going to be really good, and a much better book on this subject will be written”.  Turns out, I was right.

“The Invisible Sex” is basically the story of the evolution of modern humans based on the best evidence we now have.  But it is also a re-examination of not only the role of “women” in prehistoric human society, but also of the assumptions scholars have made about those roles over the last couple hundred years.  At long last, the thin scholarship of a book such as “The Great Cosmic Mother” has matured into the thoughtful prose of “The Invisible Sex”.

This book surveys all of the evidence we have about the varied roles of men and women, including both archeological material and ethnographic studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies.  But the authors take this a step further, offering a critique of the prevalent attitudes of different researchers and cultures through time, and follow the genesis of popular and pervasive myths such as that of “man the hunter”.

The picture that emerges is a nuanced and, ultimately, believable one.  For the fact of the matter is that we don’t know a lot about our early prehistoric ancestors (they were, after all, living their lives before any written evidence).  There are some things we can infer from the artefactual evidence and the behaviors of modern tribal people, but there are also a lot of other things that we cannot.  This book lays them all out.

Written by a trio of scholars, the writing breezes along with a sense of bold clarity that I really enjoyed.  There is even one enjoyable passage where one of the trio expresses his dissenting opinion on a subtle (but clearly important to him) distinction.  Plus (in stark contrast to several books I have read over the last year), I noted a complete lack of typographic errors in this book (being a Smithsonian publication perhaps has something to do with this).  One wrong word (maybe two) snuck in there, but that’s it.

You may be struck as you read (as I was) that this book is, in a way, mistitled.  For it is much more about prehistoric human development in general than the gender roles of women per se.  But, then, that may be part of the point of this book: the roles of men and women are not easy to discern in prehistory, but then neither are they so easy to define on a global scale even in our modern world.  Men and women have been negotiating their roles from the beginning of time, clearly, even after the point in history in which we developed a conscious concept of gender.

So although this book will do equal damage to the myth of “man the hunter” as it does to the Goddess notions of a book such as “The Great Cosmic Mother”, in doing so it offers us all a much more realistic and believable picture of the no-longer “invisible” women of human prehistory.

This is a quality book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Hominin in a Hospital” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Sitting for hours in a hospital, with not much to do except wait for one’s turn on the semi-industrial human conveyor belt that is contemporary medicine, I considered my surroundings.

The animal in me was comforted a bit by the occasional appearance of a nurse, and the regular rise and fall of the conversation at the nearby nurse’s station (that nevertheless reminded me that I was laying mostly naked in someone’s workplace).

I considered the mastery of mining, smelting and manufacture that had produced the precisely-graded needle that was inserted into my wrist, and the skill and training of the nurse that had so smoothly inserted it into the correct vein (without thought, I suspect, of the history of medical discovery that gave us a real knowledge of the human circulatory system).

This mammal was not always the good patient.

I looked with admiration on the conscientious efforts humans had made toward making the entire setting appear clean, sanitary and properly austere.  Every tile, machine and curtain fitting had been designed and manufactured by some individual or group of humans.  Some intelligence had paid attention to every detail.  Someone had even decided that the muted, mostly blue zig-zag pattern on the curtains (partially drawn around my bed in their smooth aluminum tracks) was, well, pleasing to the eye.  (I at least appreciated their effort, if not the end result).

The gurney I spent many hours on was more comfortable than I expected…for the first thirty minutes I spent on it.  And I willingly slipped into the role of “Patient”, doing my best to be chipper and agreeable as I put on the uniform of gown, blue cap and booties, and then attempted to gargle the anesthetic gel the nurse squirted down my throat.  This was something new to me and, once again, I thought of the trial and error and science represented by the thick, cool goo that challenged me to consciously override my naturally-evolved gag reflex.

The fluid dripped, dripped, dripped into my IV tube, and I considered asking the nurse about the physics of that, of why my own pumping blood wasn’t gurgling back up that serpentine tube.  I didn’t, in the end, ask her, though I knew that she would likely have had a factual answer explaining the mechanics of the apparatus.  (Earlier, I’d talked evolutionary perspectives on medicine with the doctor that was going to be snaking tubes through both of my available openings for today’s diagnostic explorations).

As the hours ticked by I noticed that my brain was eagerly gathering information, trying to build a workable picture of my new environment (so better to predict events, I think).  My ears were acutely attuned, it seems, to pick out bits of conversation from the nurse’s station, or from conversations with the other patients docked, like me, in other beds.  I found out I was “number four” out of seven patients waiting for similar procedures, and that things were off to a slow start.  I was fed bits and pieces of encouraging information by my nurse, such as “as soon as this woman goes, we’ll start prepping you!”.  These turned out to be unreliable promises, motivated as much (I suspect) by a desire to be helpful as a desire to keep the confined natives from getting restless.

As the hours mounted and even these unreliable encouragements thinned to silence, I felt a rising agitation in me, somewhat akin to when the waiter completely ignores you in a restaurant.  At the same time, I began to think of the oddity of me, a healthy hominid, submitting himself to an invasive medical procedure that, though “routine”, nevertheless had to entail a certain risk.  Suddenly, I was no longer as willing as I had been to undergo it, and made a mental calculation that the weight of having spent two days preparing for a colonoscopy was not enough to push me forward into something I now saw as more of a risk than a potential benefit.

I made a decision, and called the nurse.  But before I did that I attempted to employ the detached, rational part of my brain, to see if it could cut through the flood of emotion pumping out from both my survival and social brain.  In short, I asked myself the question of how foolish I would be for making this “gut” decision.

Perhaps that’s an impossible question to answer in such moments.  I had some evidence on the side of refusing the procedure: I was asymptomatic; my doctor was fishing for a possible cause of my food allergies, perhaps using the excuse of a condition it was very unlikely I had (it could even have been a cover for getting me the procedure that is recommended for anyone at age fifty); even the doctor doing the procedure said I had none of the major symptoms of celiac disease (not now, and even before I had changed my diet many years ago); and, on top of it all, I had developed a rather strong sense that a hospital is a very uncomfortable place to be, and should I ever prove to be in need of serious hospitalization, I didn’t know how I would physically and emotionally stand it.

On this last point I felt very much the human animal: it was unnatural for me to lay around so passively when I was not physically injured.  I couldn’t imagine doing it for days and days.  I reflected positively on the options I had marked on my advanced directive the day before, and was wondering if I even needed (or wanted!) to know if anything bad was going on in my gut, and further whether I would want to submit to a hospital stay to fix it if there was!

I decided to refuse the procedure and get the hell out of there.

The nurse answered my call in a heartbeat, and I was promptly joined by another, both trying to talk me out of my decision.  I saw a hand patting my leg.  She said they were now ready for me, and I had to let them know whether they should take the next patient instead of me.  I gave her an unequivocal answer.  I had now only to wait for them to pull out my IV, and I would go outside and wait for my ride home to Las Cruces.

I felt better.  I was okay.

Then my anesthesiologist came in, saying they were ready for me, and began gently imploring me to go ahead and “get it over with”.  I hesitated.  Then I asked her “Are you really taking me RIGHT NOW?”.  “Yes”, she assured me.

So, I went.

After my nearly 8 hours of waiting, six of which were spent on a gurney prepped for transport, I was wheeled into a high ceiling room packed with enough machines to populate a science fiction film set the likes which I’d never seen.  Within a very few minutes I was in position, exchanging scatological jokes with the doctor and technicians, and then I was drugged and dreaming of images of colons and caverns and smart-ass remarks and suddenly awake back in the room I started in, feeling in a really, really, really good mood.

My anger and anxiety were obliterated by some really effective drugs, skillfully applied.  I felt fine.

The hell of the waiting was capped by a heavenly twist.  I had made it through and could look forward to home and food.

But the impressions of the day remained with me, and though I made some apologies for my “melt down”, I don’t know that I was wrong to feel the way I did.  I now understand that part of my decision to refuse the procedure was a reaction to the powerlessness I felt in a strange environment.  Every day, it seems, I see more and more evidence of just how profoundly a social primate I am, and this experience was no exception: though I willingly submitted to all that was required of me (to please, in this case, doctors, nurses and others who were there to “help” me), there was a natural limit to my passivity, and my own personality and needs were going to demand their due.

I was probably most correct when I said to the nurse “I’ve had too much time to THINK about it”.  Part of what I was thinking about was the “industrialization” of medicine.  So much about the system is dependent on our social willingness to submit to authority, and yet the system is geared, clearly, to two other things: one being the management of nature (in creating an artificially sterile environment); the other being the convenience of the conveyor belt that moves bodies through the system (sticking me with an IV at 9 in the morning for a 3pm procedure was more about keeping me from going nuts from hunger and getting even more agitated that for any medical reason).  The nurses were the ones left to manage the psychology of the patients, but they had no power to move things along (as it is, I have to give them credit for remaining as personable as they do in such an environment).

In the end, we’re not much different than the other animals, except that we don’t require a literal tranquilizer dart to submit to a dental exam.  We have the capacity to over-ride our natural survival instincts to gargle a gel that deadens the gag reflex, to lie still while a stranger puncture a major vein with a steel needle, to submit to anesthetic that renders us unconscious so another stranger can run a roto-rooter tube down our throats or, well…

Modern medicine is a mix of amazing technology and biology and medieval barbarism; of cold technology and human social grooming.  It is a testament to our rational brains telling us that we can be civil and trusting of humans we have never met before because of their uniforms and training that signal certain norms of competence among the wider population of our culture and civic institutions.  But we are still animals, with animal needs of safety and flexibility of action.

But I’ll be wondering for a while about just what constitutes the most acceptable balance between the raw knowledge that modern medicine can offer and the emotional and psychological needs of the human animal, and what we, as a society made up of those animals, should do about it.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, February 20th, 2011

I titled this street painting "9,Tin,Fish" or "Yes We CAN!"

SERMON: “What We Don’t Know” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

I think I’ve become a sort of anti-evangelist as I preach a non-spiritual gospel of naturalism, humanism and Darwinism.  (Wow, that’s a lot of “ism’s”).  An interesting aspect of my “church” work has been the realization that my materialistic brand of atheism is not only irksome to my theist acquaintances, but is also a bit of a bitter pill for my “new age” friends to swallow.

This came to mind this morning as I talked with a friend of mine at the Farmers Market.  We both shared a certain disdain for fundamentalism, but when I said that I didn’t think there was really anything else “out there” besides natural phenomena, she averred that she thought there were things out there that we did not understand, and were yet to be discovered.

This, of course, is true.  I’d be a fool not to allow for that.  And as is natural to my social chimp nature, I took her opinion in and rolled it around a bit, checking it against my own feelings and thoughts (it’s my view that we are such profoundly social creatures that it is almost impossible NOT to be swayed, even if only temporarily, by the opinions of someone we have a social relationship with).

Two humerus...or humeri. t.n.s.r. bob's and a brachiosaur's.

Although I do not think that there is anything “out there” to support the confidence of the preacher who claims to know God and His intentions, I have come to a certain awareness of the state of current human knowledge (informed by the stack of books on science I’ve read these last years) the upshot of which comes in two parts:  The first part is general sense of where the current frontiers of science are (which includes both the things we are pretty damn certain about, and the areas where — in the words of Christopher Hitchens — “We know less and less about more and more”).  The second part is a quietly buzzing awareness in my skull telling me that our base of knowledge — so vast compared to our ancestors living only a short time ago — is still a tiny fraction of a fraction of what there is to be known about life, the universe and everything.

If the last fifty years of scientific discovery have shown us anything, it is that the questions we seek to answer seem to multiply exponentially with each new discovery.  This is not to say that we don’t know much, or that what we do know is suspect.  Not at all.  I speak more to a certain humility in the face of what biologist E.O. Wilson calls “The Creation”.

Perhaps you’ve had the same feeling I have as I sit at this marvel of modern technology, my laptop computer.  The machine I’m using is only a year and half old, but the i-pad has come out and already seems to be branching itself off into new sub-species of personal computing devices.  And so, as much fun as this very useful tool has been to use, I can’t help but feel it aging under my fingers, and cannot shake the sense that it, too, may look as antique as a dashboard 8-track player at some point in the not-too-distant future.

The exciting thing about living in our time is the ever-increasing pace of discovery.  The molecular structure of DNA was discovered only seven years before I was born (though the Nobel prize for it was awarded when I was 3, at about the time we launched a man into space).  The first electronic calculator appeared when I was in Junior High School, the personal computer when I was in my mid-twenties.

When I was young, our view of human evolution was one of a single line from ape to man, with Neanderthal’s being our brutish “cave man” predecessors.  Now (thanks in no small part to DNA technology), our understanding of the actual process of evolution has become much more nuanced (and we now get it that most of those early humans were likely among the many dead-ends that make up most of the branches on evolution’s family tree).

Think about how our view of dinosaurs has changed in the last thirty years!  Those creatures seemed so exotic and other-worldly to me as a boy, but now they are like giant chickens and cows of another time, different only in detail than anything living today.  And the Neanderthals?  They, too, have undergone a rehabilitation, and only last year we got the answer to the perennial question of whether our “Cro Magnon”  human ancestors could possibly have interbred with the brutes (the answer is a resounding “yes”!).

Every week there are announcements of new dinosaur species in the popular press.  In 2006 Neil Shubin used the predictive tools of evolution and geology to locate depositional rocks of the right age to find Tiktaalik, a clearly transitional species between our ocean-dwelling and earth-walking ancestors.

(I am not so well-read on the current research in creating “smart” plants, and the ever increasing processing speed of computers, but I do remember my first “floppy” disk, and how amazed I was when I filled it up to capacity, and had to get another one).

Tomorrow a diligent anthropologist could dig up the bones of an early hominid that could rock our world and re-shuffle timelines and theories.  This is exciting stuff.  And it leads me to be ready to have my ideas changed by new discoveries.

The question that a theist (or spiritually-minded) person might put to me (and that I put to myself) is: “What if they discover that God exists?”  Interesting question, that, and one that puts a certain chill in my colon.  Why?  Well, for one, because I think that would be very bad news for us humans, on a par with finding out that there are aliens from other planets, and that they do, indeed, want to suck our brains out.  (Now that is assuming that whatever God they discovered would turn out to be anything like the ones that most humans have been imagining for the last couple thousand years!)

But once my colon calms down I realize that the probability of such a discovery — that life on earth has, indeed been consciously-designed and is kept in motion by a divine will — is pretty damn small.  That’s why there are agnostics (who take the position that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved).

I think I take a position more like that of a scientist who would continue to call “evolution” a theory though it has, in fact, been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.  And even though the ignorant will take this as meaning that the theory of evolution is on a par with their irrational belief that God formed Eve out of a rib stolen from a sleeping Adam, the scientist understands that he or she is merely stating that every truth of science remains subject to revision, modification or rejection based upon new evidence, remote though the possibility might be.

On the other hand, I’m not a scientist, so I can let myself dance crazily off the edge of belief and swim and splash in my pond of natural causes and god-less humanism.

I once believed in God, sincerely.  But I experienced a dramatic declension from faith when the persistent erosive force of life experience and reality caused that particular castle to crumble into the surf.  Having had that experience I now hold lightly to any belief, knowing full well that the thing that will blow my mind is likely to be something that I can not even imagine right now.  But having already spent so many years of my life imagining God, I don’t think that is where the big surprise will come from.

Having said that, who knows what we will soon understand about how the realm of the “spiritual” is created in our mammal brains.  And since this is a very active area of current brain research, be prepared for some news from that front over the next few years.  Whatever comes from this research, I think we can expect it to be another series of blows to the those still clinging to a bronze-age world view of gods, demons and lives guided by external intelligences.

Oh, we’ll be surprised, to be sure.  But so far, the answer found by science has never been God.  No matter how many humans have believed it for however long, the bones, the DNA and the rocks seem to cry out not for God, but for nature in all it’s mindless complexity.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Happy Darwin Day -- a "family reunion" of sorts in chalk art.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm” by Jonathan Margolis

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

From the author’s agency’s website:

“Jonathan Margolis writes for the Guardian, the Financial Times magazine and Time.

He was the co-author, with Jane Walmsley, of Hothouse People: Can We Create Super Human Beings? (Pan 1987) and A Brief History of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2000), which analysed the successes and failures of futurologists. He has also written a number of showbiz biographies including Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic? (Orion 1998).

Jonathan’s most recent books are O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm (Century 2004) and Mob Log: Scenes from my Mobile (Artnik 2005), a follow up to his Sunday Times column, Random.

He lives in London with the author Sue Margolis and their family.”

Author Jonathan Margolis

REVIEW: As I walked into the library (ready to prowl the shelves for my next book) one thing was clear: I wanted to read about sex.  I had gorged on American History and Evolution, and needed to refresh my palette with something a bit more fun, a bit more salacious.  Lucky for me, Jonathan Margolis book “O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm” was ready and willing to service my needs.

This is a fun book, in a lot of ways.  Although it contains a lot of history (wasn’t that was I was trying to avoid?) at least it’s serious history about a subject that is pretty damn entertaining to read about.  And the author has a dry and earthy with that makes him a great tour guide through our often confused relationship with the human orgasm.

Like all good history books about humans, it begins with what we infer about pre-history from the evidence we have, and then takes on the various theories that have held sway through different periods and cultures in recorded history.  But Margolis is not satisfied with the seemingly universal attitudes toward human sexuality that have been put forward by historians (based upon medical texts, sermons and writing of specific periods. such as the notorious “Victorian” age): he digs a little deeper and acknowledges the reality that whatever the pronouncements from pulpit or physician’s office, people have been figuring out their own orgasms for a long, long time.

In the end, Margolis takes an interesting turn as he tries to predict which of our own current ideas about the orgasm will be looked upon as narrow and foolish by future students of human sexuality (as he points out the mythologies that have held sway even in our lifetime, such as the exhaled expectation of the “mutual” orgasm).

The reality is that we live in a time of some pretty good information about sex, all things considered, even as old ideas and myths persist in our consciousness (for instance, this book came out after the famous “G” spot was shown, at last, to also belong in the category of “myth”).

This is the kind of book that is highly informative, terribly entertaining, and also edifying, as it is always good to find out what everybody else is really doing…or not doing.

I’ll take a moment to ask (rhetorically) why no one at the publishing house seems to have taken a moment to read through this book for typographical errors, as they are legion.  But never mind that, let’s talk about sex!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Taking it to the Streets” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I’m writing this on International Darwin Day: Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday.  In honor of the occasion I created some special street art this morning at our downtown Farmers Market, depicting a classic portrait of Darwin being bussed by a living, breathing “missing link”, the famous Tiktaalik of the Devonion (discovered by Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish, reviewed on this blog).  It was a bit of “in the moment” inspiration to add the word balloons that had Darwin saying “Mom?”, and Tiktaalik saying “Son!”.  Inspired by Alaskan artist Ray Troll’s droll song “Your Mamma is a Lobe Finned Fish”, I added the phrase “our momma was a lobe-finned fish”.

A great image from Alaska artist Ray Troll.

Needless to say, a lot of people seemed confused (though the creationists that expressed themselves were not what I would call “confused” about the message of my art).  But it was a great opportunity to tell people that it was International Darwin Day, and talk about the discovery of Tiktaalik (a recent discovery, and a beautiful example of a transitional form between our ocean-dwelling and early tetrapod ancestors).  I wasn’t being facetious calling Tiktaalik “mom”, because she represents the fish body plan upon which our modern human bodies are based (after all, evolution and natural selection can only work upon what is available, adapting and mutating, but never creating anything new from whole cloth, as it were).

As the morning progressed, and my street painting took shape, I became aware of an interesting dynamic.  Several people complimented me on my work, adding a tag such as “It’s really great…and brave”.  Brave?  I began to realize there were moments where I felt as if I were drawing a pornographic picture that some people felt they needed to shield their children from.  One woman remarked as she walked past me “You don’t look like the type!” (later she came back by, and I asked “What type is that?”, to which she replied “A Darwinist”).  As I was telling one group of people that Tiktaalik was our ancestor, an older woman (with her military veteran husband — he had the ball cap) turned away as she huffed “that’s not one of MY ancestors!”.

One man asked me what I thought of Darwin (only later did it occur to me that the painting could have been taken as satire as well).  Turned out he was evangelical, and tried out the line of “well, that’s (meaning Darwinism) a religion too”.  I told him it wasn’t, as science is based on evidence, and so scientific “beliefs” change based upon new evidence, unlike religions.

One woman really liked the work, and told me so, but also said “That’s pretty brave to do around here”.  Assuming she was referring to the prominence of Catholicism, I said “But the Catholic Church officially accepts evolution”.  “Yeah, but still…” she said, in a sort of lowered voice.

We humans are idiots.  That’s what I felt like shouting.  Here I am, in 2012, making a statement supported by hundreds of years of science and evidence from geology, anthropology, paleontology, archeology, cosmology, biology and genetics, knowing full well that only about 20 percent of those passing by in this public market are going to be people that truly accept that evidence as the best understanding of where we humans came from.  I felt more like I was living in the intellectual middle ages.

Of course, to be fair, there were many, many people who were thrilled to see such an unequivocal expression of, well, reason.  One young woman snapped lots of pictures to send to her boyfriend who was going to be attending a Darwin Day Dinner in (of all places) Midland, Texas that night.

Lots of people thought I was drawing a fish, or an alligator, or a salamander.  But that’s about par for the course (I’ve become enough of a nerd about this stuff that I often gush about arcane details in that annoying, geeky way).  But Darwin, everybody knew.  Especially those that view him as an anti-Christ (quite literally, the god of a false and competing religion).

“You’ve been getting pretty political lately” a nearby herb vendor (who happened, by the way, to be the spitting image of the gray, fully-bearded Darwin I was drawing!).  I guess that’s true.

I’m always walking that line between entertainment and evangelism,  stumbling over it this way and that.

Not everyone was offended by my Darwin Day street art!

A great many people are really, really uncomfortable with the idea that we humans are descended from earlier life forms.  I understand that discomfort only because I know it to be a reality that I have observed myself.  But I’ve moved so far beyond such a view that I find it increasingly difficult to comprehend.

For myself, I am comforted, fascinated, humbled and intrigued by the facts of evolution.  Today, as I painted (for the first time) my little life-sized Tiktaalik, crawling across the street in my hometown, I truly felt a kinship: as if I was, indeed, making a portrait of my own grandmother.  And why shouldn’t I feel that way?  The very hands I used to create the painting are the same ones that made up Tiktaalik’s front fins/feet (the same bones, the same structure).  My hands are connected to wrist and upper arm bones and a shoulder structure that were present in Tiktaalik.  My internal plumbing bears the marks of that earliest walking fish body.  That chalk fish and I are the same creature, separated only by millions of years of gradual (and sometimes rapid) evolutionary adaptation, mutation and natural selection.

The evangelist in me wishes to share those feelings and insights with my fellow hominids, and so I took my message to the streets.

Now I can’t wait to paint “Lucy” for Mother’s Day weekend.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, February 6th, 2011

A bit local, yes, but the recent once-every-fifty-years frigid weather overwhelmed our local electric utility, forcing the closure of public schools, universities and city buildings in two large metro areas!

SERMON: “The Evolution Dialog Continues” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Recently, the friend I’d been carrying on the “Evolution Dialogue” with posted a video of this Western Lowland Gorilla (at an English animal park) that likes to walk upright.  He posted it along with this comment:

“Gorilla FINALLY figures out how to walk upright… this ought to mess with the evolutionist :)”

To which I responded:

“Mess with us, hell, it gives a great example of how WE started walking upright!”

And with that, the second “Evolution Dialogue” commenced.  Once again, I’ll call my friend “Joe” in the following electronic conversation:

Joe: We just believe differently Bob, that is all. I guess in the end we will see who is right :)

I noticed how our discussion stopped when I asked about what power holds the galactics in it’s perfect position. Does evelotion do that too?
If you are hanging onto a branch after falling from a cliff, who would an evolutionist call out to …to save him? Or would he just be willing to die?

Why are people born and still not evolving from apes? And at what point did birthing from human conception change from the evolution process?

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

Bob the above is the response to a question i asked when we were in dialog about evolution. I enjoy this dialog by the way, and I like you as a friend and that won’t change no matter how this goes or where it ends. BUT, you say that you spe…ak to evolution AFTER life begins. My question is where did life begin. In any form? If, as you say evolution deals with life once it began, then what caused life to begin, in any form? If i understand you, there was not a soup per se’ that mutations began from. Then what was the origin of life? Did it come from nothing? Also how did the various types of species derive from a general nothing substance. It had to start from some type of substance- didn’t it? The bible says that God made man from the dust of the Earth and to dust we will return upon death. So God used the dust of the Earth to create man. What did he use to create the other life forms we know exist? I am referring to before evolution as it is spoken of today. Where was the substance life began – and what atmosphere was able to sustain itself perfectly during the millions of years evolutionist say was necessary for life to develop from? The bible also states that there was a flood that destroyed all life forms. It says that Noah and his family repopulated the Earth of the form of man after the flood. If this is not true then we are back to square one as it pertains to the existence of mankind after the flood.
Thanks Bob!

Bob: Sorry — the way it was worded I wasn’t clear on what your last question was in our discussion — but now I get it.

You keep using terms like “perfect” to describe, in this case, the galaxy’s position.  It’s not perfect, it just is what it is as everything moves around.  Things are quiet out there compared to when the galaxies formed, so not as many things are flying around to bump into other things. (The larger objects out there were gradually drawn together into planets, such as earth, and then were struck by other space debris for billions of years as the earth continued to form.  It is from this space debris that we got our elements and our core of iron).

And people are still evolving.  Everything is.  You and I are, quite frankly, “transitional forms” between our ancestors and what we will become (well, at least until we go extinct!).

And the question of who I would call out to is meaningless.  You could call out to God and I could call out in the hopes of another person hearing who could actually help.  If a person showed up, you’d say it was God answering your prayer.  I’d say I was damn lucky.  But the reality much more likely would be that God did not reach out his hand and pluck you off the cliff, but you would rationalize a very human helper as being guided by your God.  (There has never been a miracle that does not have a natural explanation, even if that explanation is that someone made the miracle up!)

And there was something that we would call a “primordial soup” (the most important component to life is thought to be liquid water, which we have a lot of).  The oddest thing is that creationist’s love to claim that evolutionists say that life came from “nothing”.  We don’t.  Life formed from very natural chemical reactions.  It’s the creationist that is actually claiming that God made life “out of nothing” (and all of the species and bacteria, etc., all at once!).

Life clearly began as crude, single-celled organisms, and took a LONG TIME to move beyond that, but once things got started, life really took off in a big way.  But you have to understand that life most likely began a million times, and then failed (just as we’ve had multiple major extinction events in earth’s history — such as the dinosaurs).  But life only had to succeed ONCE for you and I to be here now.

And our atmosphere has developed slowly over the years as well.  The evidence shows that an explosion of early sea life (plankton, I believe) began to generate a great deal of oxygen, which actually made the air toxic to many forms of life that had already evolved under different atmospheric conditions (so the air certainly wasn’t “perfect” for those poor critters!).  You and I evolved from animals that adapted to breathing the mix of oxygen that we know today.  (In the times of the Dinosaurs, oxygen levels were even higher, for example).  The reality is that oxygen is toxic to us in higher concentrations.

So, once again, there is no “perfect”, there is only that which we have had milennia to adapt to, so that today you and I feel “perfectly” at home in this gravity, this air, with the foods that we have to eat.  And we live such short lives compared to evolutionary time, and have only had science to help us understand it all for a very short time.  Religion, on the other hand, has been with us a long, long time.  And we seem to really like it!

Joe: Hey Bob thanks for replying,
The above raises a question, I…f we as humans are evolving still, then why is there death? Doesn’t death stop all life in a being? All life forms die. What then determines what life forms become extinct and others do not?
How then can life still be evolving? Is there someone somewhere that is very very old and still evolving that I am unaware of? And where is the life form of man going? Has any form of life changed to some other form of a different type of being?
Wasn’t Darwin’s information about life forms referring to “The ORIGIN of SPECIES”? Would that not refer to the substance that all life forms began with rather than evolution after a life form began?

What I am trying to get from you is this,
At what point did anything that exist, start? And by what power did it begin from? You speak of evolution after life began, I am asking where and how did life forms begin prior to evolution?

Remember Bob I am a bone head so it is taking me awhile it seems to get my point across :)

Bob: I’ve said that we don’t yet know how life began, but that does not automatically mean that “god” created it.  It began some billions of year ago, so no-one was around to see it, and what evidence there is is going to be sketchy and hard to find.  Still, at least there is evidence for the evolutionary view.

Your other question reveals a basic (and very common) misunderstanding of evolution: individuals DON’T evolve, POPULATIONS do.  Meaning, evolution occurs through random genetic mutations that are passed on (or even, sometimes, occur) during REPRODUCTION.  So, if you are born with a “beneficial” mutation, you will likely pass it on to your children.  If it’s a trait that means you live while others around you die, then it will quickly become a DOMINANT trait in a POPULATION.  (This is a process that has been observed in the laboratory and in living animal populations, so in that respect we do see it happening in real time).  But once you’re past reproducing age, life doesn’t really “care” about you.  That’s why diseases that kill us off in old age don’t get weeded out by evolution, because they affect people who have already passed on their genes.  Conversely, were there to be a common disease that wiped out young people, the POPULATION would quickly be naturally selected for those that were resistant to that disease (because they would be the only ones living long enough to reproduce).

In Darwin’s time, some scientists still theorized that evolution worked by adults passing on traits they had acquired in life (such as skills, or knowledge) directly to their offspring.  We now know that the method of passing on traits is genetic.  The rest is cultural (and has to be re-learned by each generation).

So no-one knows definitively how life began, but we know FROM THE EVIDENCE that it did.  Therefore, it is possible (whether we’ve figured out the exact “how” or not).  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

That evolution and natural selection are the mechanisms for the development of the variety of life on earth is proven beyond any reasonable doubt.  No other explanation has any claim to validity.  Now you can hold on to any belief you want to, of course.  But it will always only be belief, it will never be science.

And as to one life form turning into another kind of life form, that is another misunderstanding of the process.  For instance, you and I evolved from a sort of fish at one point, and our bodies still bear the marks of that evolution.  You could say we changed from one animal into another, but that’s not correct: we evolved, mutated, adapted, yes, but everything we are had to be built upon the building blocks we started with.  (Everything that lives came from earlier living things — complex multi-cellular organisms like humans or tigers don’t just assemble themselves out of “the dust of the ground” in one step!)  That is why you and I share 99% of our DNA with Chimpanzees, 80% with mice, and 40% with a head of lettuce.  Because we ALL evolved from the same basic life forms!  (So the favorite protest of “I didn’t evolve from a monkey” is wrong because evolution never said that — only creationist’s say that — what evolution says is that modern primates share a common ancestor with us humans at a pretty recent point on our family tree!)


Final thoughts: I guess I’m a bit mystified as to why the sight of a modern gorilla walking upright could be seen as a disproof of evolution.  I assume that this gorilla might turn out to be a bit more anatomically suited to walking upright (though that may not be critical to this gorilla’s bipedal efforts)  The “keeper” in the interview does say that this seems to be a “family” trait in this bunch of related gorillas, which also demonstrates it is also a learned behavior (these sorts of unusual, localized practices are often observed in different animal populations).  But the greater point is that this sort of adaptation is, as I said at the beginning, much more an indicator of how you and I may have started walking upright.  In the case of humans, the ability and habit of walking upright was clearly, at some point, a critical adaptation in our evolutionary toolkit that allowed our upright ancestors survive and thrive while our less ambitious cousins passed into history.

In my friend’s questions, I can get a sense of the misunderstandings of the theory of evolution that he (and, it is likely, many more like him) holds, as he clearly is expecting individual human beings to show physical evidence of evolutionary change within their lifetimes, and is likewise expecting that there should be monkeys all over the world regularly turning into more human-like primates (or fish turning into quadrupeds, etc.).  On one level, of course, such a thing is happening all the time, but at the genetic level and on an evolutionary time-scale (and, as I point out, among populations, not individuals).  But it is a bit of a stunner that people know so little about what the theory of evolution actually states and are, therefore, so willing to oppose it on what seems (to them) to be rational grounds.

But, to be frank, I don’t think that a lot of the hullabaloo that is this seemingly endless struggle with evolution is really about the evidence.  It’s about belief.  And I would only be the latest of the gazillion before me who have said that belief and evidence are two species that rarely share the same ecosystem.  There is the minority of humans that accept the reality of whatever the best evidence suggests, and then there are the believers who, in many case, are probably not clear on the difference between evidence and conjecture.

To take a big step back, just imagine that we grew up in a world that had never believed in God (or Gods).  In that world, what would we think of someone who, observing a phenomenon that we had not yet studied through science, made the pronouncement that since it was such an elegant (or interesting or mature) phenomenon (and that science had not yet described it) that it must have been created by an invisible entity with supernatural powers and intention?  What would we think?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only reason that the raft of irrational ideas that we humans carry around are so widely supported is purely due the longevity of their residence in our collective consciousnesses.  That people capable of otherwise rational thought and action believe in fairy tales is really quite a stunning fact to consider.  But yet again, this thought is not original to me, as Bertand Russell put it: “It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

t.n.s.r. bob