Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

SERMON: “Accidentally Right” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

The first sermon I ever gave on Evolution had in its closing statement the line “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  At first blush that can seem a bit grandiloquent, but it is actually a reliably true statement.  Before Darwin (used in the inclusive sense of the important ideas that he famously made widely known) we were guessing at how life had become so varied and strange.  Before Darwin, even our scientists turned (with understandable consistency) to metaphysical explanations for natural phenomenon.  After Darwin, we had a means of seeing life as it really exists.

The reason we still hold Darwin in such high esteem (and the reason that creationists revile him so completely) is that his ideas turned out to be grounded in testable knowledge, and the scientific work that was able to follow and build upon his ideas has turned out to confirm the essential “rightness” of his theory of natural selection.  The same cannot be said for the medieval alchemists, the medical theories of the ancient Greeks, nor, I should say, the creation myths of any ancient religion (at least when taken literally).

Like the biologists that were (and are still) able to begin their research from the solid foundation of Darwin’s theories, I have found that same knowledge consistently helpful in making sense of my own experience of life.

For it turns out that there is, after all, a certain “harmony” to life.  From an evolutionary point of view, this makes perfect sense, as every process that exists tends, over time, to create a sort of balance between the forces that are in competition for space and resources.  Resources are a part of that balance, as are a myriad other factors from climate to geology to storms on the sun.  Though there continues a constant cycle of expansion and extinction of populations, both large and microscopic, and though the earth has experienced several global, mass extinction events, life itself will inevitably settle into some semblance of stability.

We understand the forces that create weather on our planet, but still find it incredibly challenging to predict it!

Stability is, of course, nothing but an impression — a perception that is available only to us humans (and other cognitively complex animals) when we observe the world we live in.  The sun rises, the sun sets.  December is cold (here in New Mexico, anyway), and June is hot.  The rains come on the fourth of July, and apples and chile are harvested in the fall.  But these are simplistic perceptual shorthand for the cumulative effect of uncountable ongoing processes both vast and microscopic: patterns of weather that are shaped by the rotation of the planet, fed by the heat of the sun that pumps solar energy into the vast ocean currents, and which then determines whether we’ll have floods or drought.

To the mystically-minded, the weather is an act of God.  (It might as well be for all the power we have to “change” it).

The fact is that life on earth (including our own lives) persist because we — like all life — are adaptable and able to change (either through genetic mutation through sexual reproduction or, in the case of humans, through the use of technology to alter our living environments and landscape).

I read an article once stating that most economists seemed to accept evolution from the neck down, and therefore failed to take human irrationality into account in their predictions of the behavior of markets.  I think most of us do this:  we fail to see that the “harmony” that we observe on the planet is really just a sort of a snapshot of a moment in time —  a stop-motion glimpse of the ever-renewing natural product of the living processes that create stasis only in the balance between competing forces.

Because we humans have the ability to observe and analyze our world, we frequently come to believe that our brains have somehow found a way to transcend their biology — that they are not subject to these natural forces.  They haven’t, and they aren’t.

There are many that hold that such a materialistic view of human nature degrades us to the level of animals (as if that is, a priori, a bad thing).  Nevertheless, I hold just such a view of my own (and others) behavior.  And I go further in believing that holding a falsely elevated view of ourselves is the root of many of our discontents.

Going into any situation with the conviction that our brains are the perfected product of a divine creative intelligence can be a set up for disaster.  How can we (and our poor brains) but fail to live up to that sort of performance expectation?

For if I’m honest with myself (which I always — in the end, anyway — want to be), I am wrong about something almost all of the time.  And when I’m right, I am right — as it were — by accident.

How can it be that I have survived this long (with as many loving, business and social relationships as I have) being so wrong?  Well, because the social relationships that we have — that are so essential to our own survival — are no different than the profligate and messy nature that surrounds us.

Let me explain my meaning:  Because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, we understand that being right all the time is not at all essential to the survival of a species — being right just a bit more than the other poor son of a bitch is.  Mostly our “false positives” are fear-based (which is another way of describing “survival” or “fight or flight” responses).  What this comes down to is that it is far better for us to be wrong and run away a hundred times than to be wrong and not run away the one time we were right!

When I stop and look at the first impressions I get — the initial reactions my monkey-mind comes up with — they mostly get things wrong.  Now sometimes they can be just a bit “off”, but other times they can attribute the absolute opposite meaning to something someone has just said to me (it is a standard joke of mine that a woman can turn anything a mans says to her into an insult, and a man can turn anything a woman says to him into a compliment).  If you examine your own thoughts, I’m certain you won’t have to look very far to find your own examples (if you don’t, it likely means you’ve got an added layer of self-delusion in your particular mix — also a very standard bit of human perceptual bias).

It’s humbling for me to realize that even when I do the right thing with another, my actions are motivated by my perception of a situation that forms the basis a sort of predictive mental picture of what outcome my actions will produce.  This is how our brains work: they constantly make “snap” decisions and “predict” the short-term future, and then give us our marching orders (for more on this, read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).  It is only afterwards — when things have gone wrong or not turned out as we imagined — that we have to do the forensic work to understand the “why” of the failure.  But I am finding that even when things turn out right, I was wrong in almost every way imaginable about the reasons that the other person went along with my idea!

This is startling to realize.  It makes me wonder how in the world we ever make satisfying connections with each other when we are seeing things so differently!  But of course we do find satisfying connections, so clearly getting things perfectly “right” is not the most essential component of our social relations.

We humans are wired by our evolutionary past to seek out relationships with each other.  Therefore we are motivated to make the allowances for the errors in our perception and communication with each other.  The greater the desire for connection, the wider the target we present to the arrows of Eros (in the case of romantic attraction): the lesser the desire, the harder we make it for another to “get it right”.

So what’s to be done about this?  Our brains are able to take in information and reach conclusions about hundreds of situations each day with incredible speed.  This processing takes place in a mid-level of our brain just below the more recently-evolved frontal lobes (the seat of our reason).  This mid-part of the brain is the part that makes most of our quick decisions and only afterwards sends a memo to the conscious, analytical mind (more as a sort of courtesy, to let it know what the body is already doing based on the snap decision it just made).  As Malcolm Gladwell points out, in many ways the conscious, analytical “we” are the last to know what our deeper mind and body are up to.  To expect perfect accuracy from such a system is pointless.  We operate, by nature, on a sort of two-stage system of cognition, and it is the second step of that process (the rational, analytical part) that we tend to place our confidence is as the be-all and end-all of the evolved animal brain.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the frontal lobes.  I like that I can analyze my actions and (after some years of practice) actually observe my middle-brain in action.  This does not, of course, liberate me from that mid-brain (and the emotional roller coaster ride it sends my body on at times).  But it does allow me to put just that tiny bit of distance between my instant reactions and the actions of my body or voice.

I, like many others, have long carried a secret belief that I could be just that much closer to perfect in my thoughts and actions than the next guy.  And though we like to talk about the problem of “perfectionism” we always do it in a way that is really aimed to get the spotlight off our behavior as quickly as possible so that we can get back to making ourselves “better”.  This makes sense: our fears and our instincts are what have kept us alive for millions and millions of years of evolution.  Do you think that a few centuries of social progress and civilization are going to make all of those instincts go away?

Now I have to say that our brains are good at certain kinds of prediction: I often know when someone is about to cut me off in traffic, or not stop at a red light.  In such cases my predictive brain is responding to cues and signals of a kind that would also help me stalk my neolithic prey.  But when I take that next step and try to imagine what is going on in the mind of the jerk driver I want to flip off, I can be pretty certain I have no friggin’ clue as to what that other individual’s actual thoughts or motivations were.

How can I?  Human behavior and thought is as complicated as the forces that combine to make weather, and I can’t predict that very well either.

The reality we find ourselves in is a complicated one without potential for actual resolution: we are alive because we are fearful animals, but that fear can actually interfere with our essential social relationships with our fellow humans.  In the end, the best we can truly aim for is the same sort of harmony that exists amidst the struggle for life in nature: a perception of stasis, a modicum of predictability and a dash of temporary permanence.  All of which are only imaginative approximations that allow our predictive brains to plan the next step or the next words we speak.  Even if they are only accidentally right!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “We Ancient, Modern Humans” by the not-so-revered bob

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

I’ve been reading a rather dense treatise on the views on sex and sexuality in the “ancient” world.  I’m getting a nice introduction to Greek philosophy (a subject I’ve never studied on it’s own).  But as I read the ideas of Socrates and the like, I am reminded of the book I read on the history of the Royal Academy in England (“The Fellowship and the Story of a Scientific Revolution: The Royal Society of London” by John Gribbin” — reviewed this blog), where the likes of Sir Isaac Newton ushered in the age of science in earnest.  What I’m thinking of specifically is that before experimental science arrived on the scene, nearly every idea and philosophy about human life, love, religion and nature was rooted in a rather deep (by modern standards — cavernous) ignorance of the physical and chemical reality of life on earth.  In other words, we didn’t know crap about our biological and chemical selves.

This is not something to criticize our predecessors about.  For the same existential rule applies to us as to them: we can only know what we know when we know it.  (Future generations will likely marvel in a similar manner at the decisions we made in our time regarding medicine or climate or genetics based in our own mix of knowledge and ignorance).

But then I see our own time as being still very much rooted in the worldview and philosophy of the ancient world (which continues to provide the fuel, I think, for the continuing opposition to the encroachment of scientific knowledge into our daily lives).  As “modern” as we humans are, we are still very much our ancient selves.

To put it more simply — we are still (in part) primitive people fearful of change.

One psychologist described us humans as having made our “last great evolutionary leap” during the last ice age.  In terms of our emotions, intellect and physical attributes, we are the exact same animals that re-occupied Europe after those ice sheets retreated some 10,000 years ago (with the notable exception that our brains appear to be shrinking).  But look at what has happened in our material lives since then: cities, states, nations, vehicles, electricity and medicine, all of which have played a huge part in the explosion of our population from maybe five million souls ten thousand years ago to over six billion today.

The Greeks were as smart as any of us. But before science, we were all just sort of making things up.

We’ve only recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”.  (To give you a little time perspective, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln shared both a birth date and birth year).  So, although Darwin was not the first to come to the idea that life evolved from earlier life forms, the publication of is book is widely held to be a watershed moment in our intellectual break from the “natural philosophy” of the ancient world to the “natural sciences” of the modern world.

Looked at from that perspective, it is hardly surprising that the revolutionary ideas that science has shown to be our biological and cosmic “reality” are still working their way into the self-concept of we humans.  I have to tell you that from my perspective that I often feel that the question of religion should have been settled by the publication — and subsequent validation of — Darwin’s theory.  But then (as others have pointed out to me) the ancient religions should just as easily have been put to bed by the discovery that the earth was round or that the it orbited the sun (since both ideas flew in the face of what the received religions told us about the universe).

I heard a commentator on Christian radio today talking about the threat to God’s order that is coming from the fields of scientific research having to do with devices (now in use) that can “read” brain waves (still a far cry from reading actual “thoughts”, but useful in biometric medicine and, potentially, in other areas as well). Listening to this person, I wondered a bit at how easily even the most fundamentalist modern religious believer will accept the scientific discovery that our brains actually operate by use of electrical signals (and will use that as proof of God’s miraculous design) without ever asking the most obvious question: why do we of God’s creation function in a electrochemical way at all?

If there is a divine creator — and if we could possibly step back far enough to look at our situation with an analytical eye — we would (it seems to me) have to ask the question of why the world is ordered in such an elaborately disordered manner?  Life could be fairly described as a highly functional mess that works only because of the way life reproduces, allowing enough lifeforms to adapt to changing conditions to keep life going.  Entire species and ecosystems are dying out all the time, but because there are other life forms that are geographically near enough (and functional enough) to move into the smallest opening created by the extinction of another species, life itself continues.  Even should the most severe climate change (of the kind that floods our coastal cities) descend upon us, or the next (certain-to-appear) ice age appear (that will drive most animal populations — that’s you and me too — into an ever-narrowing band of habitable landscapes), there will be species of animals and insects and plants and microbes that will flourish in the spaces left empty by all of the those same that will inevitably die out.

This is the kind of world we live in.  This is the kind of world that has only, frankly, been able to make any sense of itself with the advent of science and the scientific method.  All of the stories that came before were simply “made up”.  Even the Greek philosophers could only sit around and guess at what made the body work.  Which makes it even more of a wonder to me that there are so many people looking to books written thousands of years ago for their answers to how the earth came to be and how humans were “formed”.

Literature from the ancient world is one thing: for, as I said, we humans are not substantially changed from the ones that wrote our first stories down in written form.  In poetry and story, we can still receive knowledge and fulfillment from ancient writers.  We just can’t learn much in the way of science from them.  And though the holy books are, in their way, incredibly useful human historical documents, they are not good natural history.

Life on earth makes sense because of scientists like Darwin and Newton and a host of others (many of whom suffered persecution from religious authorities).  The fact that we humans resist releasing our death-grip on ancient mystical memories (and creation mythologies) makes sense because we are evolved animals with brains that have spent most of their history in a magical world we had no other way of comprehending (other than through personification, anthropomorphization, and make-believe stories).   When it comes to living in a age of science, we are happy to incorporate the products of that science into our daily lives, but we resist seeing ourselves for the complex, natural organisms that we are.  Give me a pill to kill the bug that’s making me sick, just don’t remind me that most of my DNA and half of my body weight is bacteria of the very close to the kind I’m trying to kill.

I don’t consider this view of ourselves (and my own self) as an insult to humans.  I do not see how it truly erodes the dignity of the individual.  Rather, I think it ennobles us in the proper way by giving us the true credit we deserve for having accomplished as much as we have with the equipment evolution “gave” us to work with.

I can live with that.

t.n.s.r. bob


Saturday, December 24th, 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.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet” by Tim Flannery.

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

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.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “Well I’ll Be a Monkey’s Nephew!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

When I was first old enough to be aware of such things, I learned that the theory of “continental drift” had fallen out of favor with geologists.  At that time, anthropologists were also trying their best to fit every hominid bone they’d dug up into a clear, linear sequence, with Neanderthals the last of the ancient brutes to give way to us graceful modern humans.  We didn’t know, then, that dinosaurs hadn’t really completely disappeared (or that they sometimes sported “feathers”).  We also didn’t really know the age of the universe.  We had seen the earth from space, but had not yet traveled to the moon.  AIDS was twenty years in the future, and there was still debate over whether cigarettes had any causal relation to lung cancer (one of the many cancers that still carried a stigma that is difficult to imagine today).

(I imagine that every generation has been astounded by the discoveries made during their time.  11 years after the Wright Brothers flew, my father was born  in a house with no electricity, and didn’t learn to drive a car until long after World War II.)

But the march of new technologies brings with it new discoveries made possible by those technologies.  So we now know how old our universe is, and have proven by measurement both Einstein’s theory of relativity and the reality of plate tectonics (the more refined version of “continental drift”).  We have sequenced both the human and the Neanderthal genome, and now know that Neanderthals were a branch off the family tree that died out (but not before mixing their DNA with some of our modern human ancestors).  And though we’ve been unable to recover any dinosaur DNA, we have seen through current DNA and biology dinosaur’s continuation in modern birds such as the humble chicken (which is now being “reverse engineered” back into its earlier, dinosaurian form — we’ll have to see how that works out!).

But besides the “big” discoveries, what strikes me as equally significant is the slow but steady softening of our hard-edged ideas of how the world works and how living things came into being.  Take the linear approach to human evolution, where one animal form leads inexorably to the next.  We now realize just how broken our fossil record is when it comes to human evolution, and that many of the specimens we have recovered were likely not in our direct ancestral line.  We now think more broadly when it comes to the human family tree — seeing it more like a true tree with many branches splitting off from the trunk at many different points at many different times.  Of course we living modern humans represent a single branch that can trace its beginnings back to the, well, beginning.  But we now realize that not every fossilized hominid bone we find can be confidently called mom or dad.  They are often more our aunty or uncle.

Which is why I found Carol Jahme’s recent article (“Lice, sex, gorillas and genetics”) in The Guardian so bracing.  It turns out that our ability to study DNA has given us a tool with which we can estimate the time in the past when related species split off from their parent stock (when they branched off from their particular family tree).  In the case cited in this article, scientists studying the differences in the DNA of gorilla and human head and pubic lice were led to an interesting conclusion: there was clearly a lot of hanky-panky back and forth between our diverging hominid ancestors as they evolved into different species.

"That's not MY ancestor!" said the woman walking by.

This seems to me to be a bit of dramatic news, in that it calls up a sort of re-imagining of my primate-hominid ancestors somewhat akin to finding out that stolid old great-great-granddad was making a few extra kids on the side with the hired help.  But having just recently absorbed the news that I might have a bit a Neanderthal blood in me, this is just one more step into a more healthy and realistic understanding of how evolution (and, well, sex) works.

I find it all a bit exciting, especially as I realize that science is leading us ever deeper into a much more realistic understanding of life, and taking us further and further away from the mythology that has passed as knowledge for (lets be frank) most of our history as modern humans.  We are learning that certain cancer treatments, say, work at an incredible level in certain groups of patients, but do nothing for others.  In the past, we would have stopped at that fact, and called it a modestly successful treatment.  But medicine is taking the next step, and figuring out ways to determine what makes one group of humans genetically different from another, which could therefore allow doctors to test for the patients for whom the treatment is very likely to be effective, while sparing others a difficult and hopeless treatment.  This is incredible progress.  It is also technology-dependent and complex, even as it holds out promise for pulling medicine ever-more out of its own medieval roots.

All of these twists and turns — as we discover them —  begin to paint a picture of the ebb and flow and endless mixing of life, as genes mutate, re-combine in new offspring and respond to new (and old) environmental pressures.  Each and every one of us is a singular microbial ecosystem, related, yes, but also, in a way, our own unique world.  To my mind, such awareness carries me away from the simplistic, teleological ideas of our past.  The idea that such a system is the result of an intelligent creator who had us in mind from the start becomes so fanciful as to be beyond consideration.

Life is a wondrous mess — a cohesive chaos so improbable as to be considered impossible were it not for the fact of its existence.  Living in a time where we are able to come to a genuine appreciation of our true state is, I think , rather remarkable.  We will never have the experience of those who saw man make his first flight in a airplane, or ran in terror at the noise of the first steam locomotive.  No, we have become used to the advance of machines.  We have not, however, proven ourselves so adaptable to the advance of ideas about our own origins and evolution.  In that regard, we are like the Londoners who resisted more efficient coal stoves that could have cut their waste and pollution by a factor of four: they feared the new, and instead wanted to keep the comfort of the smoky, inefficient open fireplace.

And so I have to regularly remind myself that there are many who regard most of the information I’ve referenced here as false and iniquitous.  They cannot appreciate the latest discoveries about human evolution because they will not accept that humans evolved at all.  As one woman snapped when I referred to (my street painting of) Tiktaalik as one of our “ancestors”: “Well, it’s not one of MY ancestors!”.  I just hope she doesn’t hear about our hominid great-great-grandparents fooling around with their gorilla cousins!  I don’t think she’d take that too well.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, February 13th, 2011

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

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

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin.

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

This is THE book.  It’s the one whose publication everyone refers to as marking the point in history before which religious explanations of the origins of life held sway, and after which they were irrevocably displaced by the explanations of reason and science.

I was feeling a bit embarrassed that I’d not read this foundational document of the theory of Evolution, having read so much that referred to it.  And after having breezed through a book a week for months, I was surprised to find it taking me more than a month to work my way through a facsimile version of the first edition of Darwin’s book.  That being said, let me give you my impressions of the book and it’s author.

Charles Darwin

First of all, I did not find in it the troubled and tortured man that I saw portrayed in the recent film “Creation” (reviewed on this site).  Having been made so aware of Darwin’s inner conflict between his discoveries and his own waning faith (and — as shown most dramatically in “Creation” — the conflict with his beloved wife’s religious piety), the first thing that struck me was the sheer confidence of the writer as he presents the evidence for his theory of natural selection and descent with modification.  In this passage he turns the Biblical “argument from nature” argument on its head:

“On the view of each organic being and each separate organ having been specially created, how utterly inexplicable it is that parts, like the teeth in the embryonic calf or like the shriveled wings under the soldered wing-covers of some beetles, should so frequently bear the plain stamp of inutility!  Nature may be said to have taken pains to reveal, by rudimentary organs and by homologous structures, her scheme of modification, which it seems that we willfully will not understand.”  P. 480

At nearly every turn, Darwin squares off against the belief in “special creation”, taking pains to present the falsity of its claims based on the evidence.  (And boy is there a lot of evidence).  This boldness surprised me.  What also surprised me was how clearly every argument against his theory (a good third of the book addresses anticipated arguments against his theory) that Darwin answered represented the very same arguments used by young earth creationists today!

“It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.  Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory.”  P. 481-82

What comes through is the sense of a scientist bursting with volumes of evidence so enormous that the task of condensing them into even a long book is a daunting one.  Even so, there are long passages of great detail about the breeding of pigeons (for example) that can seem interminable, though they were necessary for Darwin to establish the fact that species are mutable (a major argument against the notion that each species we see were created separately by God at one moment in history).  The same goes for long chapters on plant breeding.  These sections I worked my way through like I once worked my way through the entire Bible, one page at a time (I have to confess here that I did scan the last couple of chapters, once I realized that the lengthy summation at the end of each chapter would give me a detailed recapitulation of the facts, and clue me in to anything in that chapter I really needed to go back and read).

Of course I read nothing new about the theory of Evolution in Darwin, but how could I expect to?  (There has been so much fine writing about the current state of our research of late!)  Of course everyone refers back to Darwin, and many writers point out the details he was wrong about, or the discoveries that came after his book.  But what struck me deeply was just how much of everything I’ve learned about Evolution from modern authors is right there in Darwin’s first edition.  This is no feeble framework that others had to shore up: this is an edifice of impressive dimensions.  Here is a sampling of quotations:

“What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?…The explanation is manifest on the theory of the natural selection of successive slight modifications, – each modification being profitable in some way to the modified form…” P. 434-435

“How inexplicable are these facts on the ordinary view of creation!…On the theory of natural selection, we can satisfactorily answer these questions.” P. 437

“That many and grave objections may be advanced against the theory of descent wit modification through natural selection, I do not deny.  I have endeavored to give to them their full force.  Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts should have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but thy the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor.  Nevertheless, this difficulty, thought appearing to our imagination insuperably great, cannot be considered real if we admit the following propositions, namely, – that gradations in the perfection of any organ or instinct, which we may consider, either now exist or could have existed, each good of its kind, – that all organs and instincts are, in ever so slight a degree, variable, – and, lastly, that there is a struggle for existence leading to the preservation of each profitable deviation of structure or instinct.  The truth of these propositions cannot, I think, be disputed.” P. 459

The true reward of reading On the Origin of Species was to arrive at the final chapter (which is entirely quotable and elegant in its entirety), and this famous final paragraph, which — after having read what came before — had an impact upon me I could not have imagined:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” P. 490

What a man Charles Darwin must have been.  Too see what he saw; to so thoroughly connect the many dots; to so courageously challenge the dominant views of his time with such thoughtful, respectful and yet forceful argument.  Even had science not added so much to his theories over the last 150 years, most of the great questions about our origins were answered in this book.  The fact that so many still doubt that is beyond my understanding.

If we humans were truly rational creatures (or even close) the publication of this book would, indeed have dealt a blow to religion from which it would never have recovered.  But religion persists in claiming to describe our origins, even as Darwin’s theories have been (and continue to be) proven true in ways that even he could have only (at best) vaguely imagined.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Walking and Talking” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

the not-so-reverend bob

As I walked my morning walk the other day, I knew I was feeling some emotional discomfort.  It turned out to center on feelings about my relationship with my mother.  So I started to talk about it, out loud, to myself, as I walked.

I first made the case against myself, exploring as honestly as I could the parts of my actions (or lack of action) that spoke poorly of me.  Then I searched out the other conditions and circumstances that had an influence on me — societal expectations; cultural definitions of what a mother and son’s relationship would be; the evolutionary perspective of how we and other animals treat family bonds and, finally, the knowledge I had of my mother’s personality and attitudes that both formed my personality as a child and determined (to a degree) what potentialities existed for our adult interactions.

By the time I was done with my walk, I felt better, and could see things with a bit more clarity.  It was then I realized that I exactly duplicated the religious acts of prayer, confession, forgiveness and consolation.  I further understood that the point of such religious practice (as well as my own) was to make myself feel better: to gain insight and to expiate uncomfortable feelings of guilt.  The ONLY things missing in my morning walk and talk were a priest and, well, God.

But were they, truly, missing?

Of course not.

We do what we need to do to feel okay with ourselves, and the argument could be made that we use “prayer and confession) to self-justify much more than to repent.  To the religious believer this might seem a shamefully self-centered act.  To an anthropologist, I would think, it’s hardly surprising.  What interests me more is how much consistently we take this natural internal process for maintaining our emotional and mental equilibrium and externalize it and outsource it to priests, rabbis and gods.

It is believers who attack the secular and humanistic among us as setting ourselves up as God.  In short, we are idolaters, putting self above God.  The thing that hit me the other day is just how laughably false this notion is.  It is actually the believer that sets him or herself up as God by taking a completely self-contained, natural process of our own consciousness and re-branding it as “prayer”, “confession” and (let’s be frank here) “the VOICE of God”.  And we’re the egotistical ones?  Hardly.

Belief is so natural to us humans (varying, of course, in intensity across a wide spectrum) that I am finding less and less evidential support for my incredulity that modern-day humans that believe in some form of creationism actually outnumber those that embrace the facts of evolution that Charles Darwin so eloquently established over 150 years ago (see the review of On The Origin of Species on this blog).

I can hardly improve on Darwin’s own statement addressing the Creationists of his day:

“On the view of each organic being and each separate organ having been specially created, how utterly inexplicable it is that parts, like the teeth in the embryonic calf or like the shriveled wings under the soldered wing-covers of some beetles, should so frequently bear the plain stamp of inutility!  Nature may be said to have taken pains to reveal, by rudimentary organs and by homologous structures, her scheme of modification, which it seems that we willfully will not understand. (emphasis mine)”
— Charles Darwin, “On the Origin of Species” 1st Edition, p. 480.

Containing — as we humans do — all the impulses, machinations and rewards of religious practice within our own evolved consciousness, I suppose I must conclude that I am arguing only about the terminology we use to describe it.

You say “God”, I say “consciousness”.  Who’s right?  Well, of course I am in the sense that I’m not trying to make more of what I’ve got than is actually there.  The religious (or the spiritual, for that matter) incline toward  making holy mountains out of perfectly good mole hills (I mean, what’s a perfectly happy mole need with a mountain anyway?).  And if it weren’t for the ignorance and excess that this externalizing and dividing of self engenders, what problem could I possibly have with it, I wonder?  (After all, the more I learn, the more the capacity for religion seems a completely natural human phenomenon, so that railing against it seems about as useful as trying to change the blind spot in our eyes or the fact we have lungs and not swim bladders.)

So, the further I go in understanding what is really going on, the further I am removed from any shred of a capacity to see religious explanations as being anything of the sort.  As Darwin put it long ago:

“It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.  Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory.”
— Charles Darwin, “On the Origin of Species” 1st Edition, p. 481-82

Anytime God or a scripture is invoked it is not an explanation, it is a door slammed shut on the intellect and inquiry.  And I like to keep doors open to insight, and windows open for fresh air to circulate.  But as my above-described experience of walking and talking to myself shows, understanding Evolution and our true place in the universe changes everything about how we view ourselves and the world, while at the same time it changes nothing about how we — and that world — work.

bob bless!

t.n.s.r. bob