Archive for December, 2011
This two-hour program begins with the question of how such a wide diversity of life came to exist on our planet. The answer, of course, is evolution. Tracing first the beginnings of Darwin’s great idea, this NOVA special then begins to fill in the gaps in Darwin’s own understanding of just how natural selection actually created diversity in living organisms (there is a lot of great explanation of DNA research and discoveries).
This is the kind of quality science program I’ve come to expect from NOVA: bracing and informative, with interviews of important contemporary researchers in various fields of science. (I was particularly pleased to see a segment devoted to Neil Shubin’s discovery of Tiktaalik, the most dramatic transitional fossil find of recent years. Shubin is the author of the great book “Your Inner Fish” — reviewed this blog).
As an extra bonus, I heard new theories about the unexpected genes that may have had something to do with the dramatic increase in human brain size (as compared to our primate cousins). Very exciting stuff.
The writing is fine, and the two-hour program carefully builds the case for evolution in a way that is really kind of exciting. My only criticism would be of the style of the presentation — the overly-dramatic music, too many quick edits and a remarkably un-helpful (and often replayed) animation to represent the branching “tree of life” (as I watched it I kept wondering if it would make sense to someone new to the idea, especially since it was unclear to me what it was actually showing).
But other than the one graphic designer who should be sacked, this is an engaging and worthwhile overview of where we are in our understanding of just how we came to be the walking, talking humans that we are.
There are times when I catch myself moving in a way that makes me think I’m very close to a clumsy stumble. I most often take my bipedalism for granted, but there are times that I wonder at the magic of it — how we manage all of the intricate, spit-second inputs and muscular motions that keeps us moving, standing, dancing, jumping or running. I’m most certainly made aware of it when my toe catches something and I do one of those embarrassing trip-stumble-recover things (and then attempt to adopt a demeanor somewhat akin to a cat that has just fallen awkwardly from some perch: “What, I didn’t do that!”). It’s at times like this that I appreciate just how fine we cut things (the truth is that my foot is probably skimming about an eighth of an inch above the ground most of the time).
In evolutionary terms, this makes sense: why waste energy lifting the foot any higher than it needs to? As I recently heard pointed out, natural selection favors the gazelle that can just barely outrun the cheetah, not the one that leaves it miles behind. That’s why I can look down and realize that the big bump that generally trips me up is actually a small crack in the pavement, lifted up only a fraction of an inch. Most of the time, we judge correctly, and those times when we don’t, we’re still pretty close, and can recover our balance. Once in a while, though, we’re going down.
When I stepped off the concrete pad down to the mostly-dirt lawn beyond (carrying my standard extra load of briefcase and gym bag) I somehow landed on the edge of my foot and kept going in a way that created a singular sharp sound of tearing that shot right into my brain. I didn’t fall, but I stumbled, and knew I’d done something wrong. I also knew I had only to wait a few minutes for the confirming pain from swelling in the tight compartment of flesh, bone and muscle that is the foot.
I stumbled into my studio and set down my bags, still not in severe pain, still trying to act as if what had just happened hadn’t just happened. This was the moment when I was surprised by an urge to pray to God for deliverance, or healing, or whatever. What I wanted most desperately to do was to roll back time to the moment before I failed to take my mode of forward locomotion seriously enough to avoid seriously injuring my foot. I wanted to deny reality. And in response to that desire, my brain offered me God. Interesting. But even in that desperate moment, my reasoning brain had to say “Thanks, but, no thanks”.
As I continued into my studio my mind raced as it double-checked all of the sensory inputs: did I really hear a distinctive tearing sound? Maybe not. Maybe it’s just a muscle injury (since the sound was neither a “snap” nor a “pop”). A muscle tear might mean swelling and some damage, but I can live with that. At least it won’t mean the expense and recovery time of surgery. But how could a tearing muscle make a sound that would carry through skin and sock and leather boot? Surely it’s not a tendon, I thought. Wishful thinking, clearly, as my thoughts were mostly efforts to undo the undeniable reality of what I had just done.
But the queasy feeling in my abdomen gave confirmation that I had been deeply injured in some way, and I was suddenly like any other wounded animal. My mind began racing ahead through my afternoon and the days ahead, working out the ramifications of my potential inability to move, work or care for myself.
But unlike an injured animal on the plain, I could go to a hospital. Despite the pain, I was wrapped in a kind of euphoria as my body pumped adrenaline and endorphins into my veins. It wasn’t until I was in the emergency room, talking to the nurse, that I felt my animal wariness drop: sensing safety and the care of others, my animal brain allowed the reality of my situation to sink in. I could have cried.
An x-ray would later confirm the the broken foot, and a skilled human would advise me on how best to accommodate the healing of sundered bone (that was the sound I heard). Pills were prescribed and I was issued an isolating boot and crutches.
But even with all of the modern helps, I am still an animal used to walking, walking, walking. Now every change of location requires a re-thinking. Now the mind is looking ahead for where the challenges will be: what plans must be changed, what activities will have to be managed with new methods, or with help from others.
Being a social human, I have help available. I have friends and family, and I am not an elk with a broken leg who is in danger of being singled out by a fanged predator. I know from experience that it will take a while to get used to my injury (to feel out the boundaries of it by trial and error). And, of course, it will most likely gradually improve. We have all been sick or injured and we know the drill, even if we don’t yet know an unfamiliar injury.
As I write, my brain is trying to work around my broken foot, adjusting to the reality of it. I still don’t want to believe I can’t just get up and walk. When I sit for a while, and the foot doesn’t hurt, it’s easy to forget it’s a problem at all. But then I stand up, or bump it against something, and realize with uncertain clarity that even if I had to, I couldn’t run from anything right now. That is disturbing to the animal in me, for deep inside my animal brain persists. (We have left little of it behind us in our evolution: we have only layered a more modern brain on top of it).
I’m still fascinated (and not a little bothered) by the part of my brain that — in the midst of madly scanning for ways out of my injury — pulled out the idea of God. In a way, it confirms what I’ve come to understand about my human brain: it is, indeed, a believing brain (as Michael Schermer calls it in his book, reviewed this blog). But it’s worth noting the conditions under which this nonbeliever was given that idea to consider. We know that our brain files information and experience in a contextual way (see “Kluge” — reviewed this blog) and I’ve noticed that when something happens that demands a response, the brain simply pulls every file that it recognizes as having anything at all to do with the subject at hand. This doesn’t mean that the brain will always (or even often) pull the “right” file off the shelf of memory. It just grabs everything it can and throws it at the conscious mind like a badger throwing dirt as it digs after prey. So, because I have past experience as a believer in God, that file was still on my shelf (and always will be, along with every other experience I’ve ever had).
But there was still an emotional component to the idea. Though my rational mind dismissed it right away, my emotional brain really really wanted to use it. Why? Because I was afraid and desperately trying to construct a bulwark against the reality I was trying very hard to deny.
My mother called family members to pray for me. And I was deeply relieved when the doctor told me my fracture would heal on it’s own, without surgery. Were I a believer, I would have stood up in church (on my nevertheless broken foot) and called that a “miracle”, or an “answer to prayer”. (neither of which would have been true, but I would nevertheless have found a tide of intellectual support for the notion).
The reality is that I will always have a “believing brain”, and I will always have those past experiences of belief. Never mind that there was no actual God to call upon in my moment of animal fear — at least no intelligence with the cosmic power to turn back time and undo the physical damage I had done to my own body. I know enough now about neuroscience and the human mind to understand what’s going on in my brain during a crisis like this. But that moment of rapid-fire thinking reminded me of the emotional pull of belief, a pull that so many humans give in to for comfort and hope. I get it. But, then, I think I always have.
I’m a physical animal in a physical world, and I took a bad step that overstressed the collection of bones and tendons in my foot, leading the weakest part of that assembly to give way first. In pain and fear I wanted desperately to alter reality. But I could not. Thanks to helpful humans, I am helped in my recovery, which comes down to giving that foot as much rest as I can so that the physical process of healing can proceed all on its own. We move, we trip, we are injured, we are helped and we heal and move on.
One of the most remarkable finds in ancient human bones (including the Neanderthals) has been the number of serious injuries that healed. These are the kinds of injuries that would have disabled individuals for a time, a time during which they could only have survived with the help of their fellows. For all the animals that are out there, it makes me feel very lucky, indeed, to be a human.
In this remarkable film, directed by (and starring) Vera Farmiga (who was spectacular in the recent “Up in the Air”), the close-knit world of a community of evangelical Christians is shown with a clarity and unflinching faithfulness to that reality that I’ve never seen in a film before. Because of my shared experience in evangelical Christianity, I found the movie hard to watch at times. But it was worth watching.
Billed as the story of a woman (Corinne) questioning her faith, I think it is more than that. It is one woman’s story, yes, but her story is a continuation of her own mother’s tale and is bound to carry on in the lives of her own daughters. We see the back-story that precedes the main character’s conversion as a young girl, and the later “Road to Damascus” experience that turns her rock and roll musician husband into the Bible-quoting drudge he turns out to be.
It is at this conversion point in the story where time — as it were — is ordered to stand still, and it then becomes a question of how long Corinne can bend to the increasingly stifling intellectual confinement of a religious universe that can not be allowed to expand, lest it explode and fall apart. But life being what it is, there has to come that moment that tests one’s faith, and we see that moment coming like a slow-moving train wreck.
What happens next is both lyrical and heartbreaking.
I don’t know if this film is for everyone. It’s not perfect, but it certainly is remarkable, and deserves an audience.
Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why is there evil in the world?
Each of those questions is flawed from the start, as they generally presuppose an answer of a certain kind — a response that would be the peanut-butter to the jelly in the spiritual sandwich. But what if we ask the universe for peanut-butter and get subatomic particles instead? Neutrinos instead of Nutella?
From the moment that we ask these value-laden questions we are bound to be unhappy with the answers that nature has on offer.
There is no “why” simply because there is no responsible cosmic party from whom we can demand an accounting of their creation. Or, to be more precise, there is no evidence for an intentional agent (read: creator) in the universe. This may be the hardest thing for a human to accept (though it’s probably not that easy for a dog to accept either — you’ve seen their eyes when you try to explain that there is no more hot dog after you’ve eaten the last bite). There is only “why” in the form of explanation, or description. These are the questions that science answers. Why are we here? Because we evolved here. Why did we evolve here? Because the life that led to us started here. Why? Because the conditions were right for life to begin. The rest is filled in with the rather amazing details of genetics, plate tectonics, chemistry, biology, photosynthesis, natural selection, multicellular life forms, viruses, bacterias, reproduction, mutation, history, culture, language, economics, psychology and everything else we’ve learned to study and observe about ourselves and the world we live in. In short, we could easily rival the most inquisitive two-year old with an endless list of “why’s”.
Religion has answered the question of “What is the purpose of man” with versions of “To know God and love Him forever”. But the only reason that God can pass as an answer to any of the most fundamental questions about life is through a flawed understanding of what those questions really are, and the kind of answers we can expect to get to those questions.
God was clearly an early stab at “meaning” (I say “clearly” because we know that ideas of gods and spirits go very far back in our intellectual history). And since “God” was there first, “He” has thereafter flavored the discussion, and thereby warped the questions we ask of life. For what is there about life, the universe, and everything that gives us any expectation of the kind of answers that religion implies by the questions it asks? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The provocative title of Christopher Hitchen’s bestselling book was “God is Not Great”. But I would go even further and say that God is small. Because God as an idea is — when all is said and done — reductionist, limiting, unimaginative and far from up to the challenge of encompassing the “creation” we find ourselves in. Religion — it turns out — is all of the things the religious project onto science. For the religious leader will pronounce (without the necessary irony) that a “belief” in science reduces humans to nothing more than protoplasm; a collection of cells; mere apes. But we really are all of those things! The believer in a divine creator will further state that evolution makes the incredible claim that something (life) can spring from nothing (inert materials). The irony again is that this is what religion — not science — claims: that God, by some miraculous act, formed Adam out of dust and heavenly spit. (Which, if taken metaphorically, isn’t a bad poetic description of how minerals and liquid water might have been energized by solar energy at the beginnings of life). Because we are intelligent, they argue, we must have been created by an equal or greater intelligence. Really?
The problem is that the universe is just too big (and too vast, and fast and complicated) to have come out of a mind. Any mind.
Our idea of mind comes from our own experiences of having one, a trait which seems to lure many of us into trying to imagine what a really, really, really big mind would be like. But our imaginings are of necessity limited to, well, what we ourselves can imagine (which is limited to our actual knowledge and past experience). And as colorful, delightful and surprising as the human mind can be, it is a limited, physical organ. We resist this notion when we tell ourselves that the brain itself is unlimited, if only we could teach ourselves the ways of unleashing it. But this is pipe-dream stuff — childhood fantasy at work.
But in so many ways, we humans never get out of our childhood. And how could we expect to, really? We are born completely dependent upon seemingly omnipotent others, and that is a habit we never unlearn. We are profoundly (PROFOUNDLY) social animals: we can literally feel each other’s pain due to the power of our brain’s mirroring capacity. Our lives are these rich sensory experiences filtered through intricate and fecund inner feelingscapes. It is, truly, a wonder to be alive. And far, far too wonderful (and tragic, and heartbreaking and beautiful) to be compressed into the sorry, sad lump of inert platitudes that are religion’s very highest achievements.
Throughout history religion has resisted the expansion of the human consciousness by constantly reducing newly-acquired human knowledge to either the heretic’s prison or the fires of censorship. The religious leader must be constantly herding the multiple intellects of his flock into as narrow a corral as possible, lest they stray (here their use of the term “flock” reveals its shadier tones).
Religion has always resisted science (as it continues to today). Proven data which the preacher cannot co-opt is preached against. And we are expected to believe that this is the path to the eternal, unlimited, bigger-than-anything-that-ever-was-or-ever-will-be-God-of-the-universe? Can we not see the terrible irony here that a God that great should demand servile minds so small?
As Hitchens likes to point out: for a leader of believers who claim to have their eyes on the next world, preachers sure seem pretty concerned about building their fiefdoms here on earth. As Scrooge would say “There is much more of gravy than the grave” about this God.
But what of hope? You are surrounded by millions of your fellow humans (not to mention every other life form on this planet) that are in the exact same boat you are: facing their own mortality. Why waste precious time on a world that is not awaiting us while ignoring the one world we actually have, here and now?
So if “why” isn’t the question we can — or even should — ask, what is?
It is the central question of Humanism: Knowing what we know, how do we go about living satisfying, meaningful lives?
That is the actual challenge we all face. It is in the ways that we work out that answer that “meaning” is found. And meaning, in the end, is personal. It is, in fact, the only place that meaning can exist. It is the only place to ask and answer the questions of “why”.
Despite the reputation that scientists have for being materialistic, atheistic drudges, I find a handful of them showing a strong propensity for reserving for themselves a bit of the spell of belief. Sam Harris — famous for attacking the dangers of irrational religious belief — waxes metaphysical way about the wonders of Transcendental Meditation. And now Tim Flannery spends most of Here on Earth (which is subtitled “A Natural History of the Planet”) referring to the collective organism that is life by the name of Gaia — the ancient Greek “mother of all life” — in ways that stray a bit far afield from the scientific.
I suppose I wouldn’t be as bothered by this if the author of “Here on Earth” didn’t spent a good deal of his first chapter upbraiding Richard Dawkins for his rationalist sins (apparently because Dawkin’s views don’t leave enough room for mythologizing or personifying the planet). Flannery also takes the view that Darwin erred on the non-belief side, and that his co-credited researcher Alfred Russell Wallace was nearer the mark when it came to allowing room for our natural predilection towards belief to have it’s say in the theory of evolution. (Wallace famously later became a believer in Spiritualism).
But then the book turns out not to be a natural history of the earth at all (save for a few remarkable chapters), but a mishmash of science, natural studies, dire warning and polemic for some scientifically-informed semi-mystical view of earth, life, and our somehow historically ordained role in healing the very ecosystem that we have fouled nearly beyond repair.
But enough about that. There are at least two chapters in this book that gave me new information, and are worthy of a read (were more of the book like these chapters, I would be dancing in the streets). One discusses the role that life itself has had in creating landscape (I didn’t know that this was a potentially greater force than natural erosion as it carries chemicals into the earth via plant roots that help dissolve rock and create soils). Another plus is the cogent description of just how it was possible for us to bring about the climate crisis already overtaking us. But beyond these, though, the book is a jumble.
If you want a really (REALLY) good book on a natural history of everything, get Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (reviewed this blog) and skip this book. If you’re of a more “casserole” type of temperament, you may enjoy this blend of human-centric, new-agey views and hard science. But even for that, I suspect there are more coherent books available.