Posts Tagged ‘e. o. wilson’

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

REVUES FROM THE REV: “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson

Sunday, February 14th, 2010


Did you know that our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells — that we could be accurately described as a “bacterial ecosystem”?  I didn’t until I read this book.

E. O. Wilson is a naturalist, retired Harvard professor and a specialist in ants.  He is also a Southerner by birth, and in this eloquent book he addresses himself to a Southern Baptist Preacher in his plea for that influential believer’s help in halting the rapidly accelerating extinction of much of the Earth’s (as of yet undocumented) biodiversity.  Wilson’s affinity for his imagined Preacher is natural-born, and he aims to persuade on the basis of a shared passion for the sanctity of life under the mantle of “stewardship”.  Wilson knows his Bible, and he knows his audience.  Whether he will convince conservative Evangelicals is an open question.  If in the end he does not, it will not be for lack of grace or sincerity in his presentation.  And his presentation is quietly astounding.  I frankly had no idea that we have (at this point in our history) left such a vast swath of the living organisms on our little planet undiscovered and unstudied.  Wilson estimates that we have discovered only ten percent of the life forms on earth, and that fewer than one percent of those have been studied beyond a description and basic natural history.  Wilson’s plea, then, is made from the humility the naturalist feels when confronting the scope of The Creation combined with the student’s excitement at the yet-to-be revealed potentialities hidden in that which awaits “discovery”.

Wilson’s starting point is that we humans took a dark turn during our “Neolithic Revolution” when we began to rely on the human-imposed agriculture that made the rapid rise into our modern age possible.  Such a growth spurt has allowed us humans to become a powerful agent of extinction on the planet (and here he is careful to describe the difference between the “natural” cycle of extinction and the arrival of new species and the increased levels of extinction associated with human activity).  And yet Wilson is an optimist — being hopeful is clearly in his nature.

One surprising aspect of this book (aside from the stunning examples he gives of our current knowledge of nature set against our ignorance) is that Wilson — though speaking to a Baptist — pulls no punches on the differences between his naturalistic view of The Creation and the Creationist/Intelligent Design view.  Wilson has no appeasing bones in his body, relying instead on honesty and open-handedness to open a path to understanding between this naturalist and Evangelicals.

Wilson offers a cogent description of science and scientists that is at once true and useful.  He compares individual scientists to the worker ants he studies “…by and large…too modest to be prophets, too easily bored to be philosophers, and too trusting to be politicians.”  Concluding:

“The power of science comes not from scientists, but from its method.  The power, and the beauty too, of the scientific method is its simplicity.  It can be understood by anyone, and practiced with a modest amount of training.  Its stature arises from its cumulative nature.  It is a product of hundreds of thousands of specialists united by the one binding commonality of the scientific method.  Few scientists know more than a small fraction of available scientific knowledge, even within their own disciplines.  But no matter:  their fellow scientists are continuously testing and adding to the other parts, and the entire body of scientific knowledge is easily available.  The invention of this remarkable engine of testable learning was the one advance in recorded human history that can be called a true quantum leap.  But it attained its preeminence relatively late in the geological life span of humanity, and only after the human intellect had traveled a long, tortuous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion.”

Wilson later offers a clear explanation of why Intelligent Design cannot be treated as a valid scientific hypothesis.

There is a quiet grace to this love letter to our species as it attempts to open our eyes to our precarious grip on (and our deep connection to) the thin band of life that clings to our planet.  The truth is simple: we are inseparable from nature, and nature from us.  I found many passages in this book worthy of remembering.  I believe you will too…even if you’re not a Baptist Minister.

the not-so-reverend bob

NON-OVERLAPPING MAGISTERIA: Science and Religion. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

It occurs to me that you might wonder why I spend so much time on the question of God.  I’ve asked myself the same question.  If I consider the question of God to be a settled issue in my own life, it yet remains far from settled in the culture I live in.  Since my primary focus is the personal perspective that a knowledge of human history and Darwinian evolution can offer, it would seem best to leave religion alone,  to respect the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” (in which science has nothing to add to religion, and religion has nothing to add to science).  Of course we know this to be — at most and in practice — a “polite fiction”.  My concern with the overlapping influence of religion and science is that religion encourages a determined belief in the metaphysical, the mystical and the supernatural.  That’s reason enough to question it, but religion goes further and actively promotes a distrust of the human intellect (and human intellectuals) that leads to the distrust of even the most widely accepted discoveries of science.

Science is not perfect, nor are it’s practitioners infallible.  It is, however, an honorable and worthy example of humankind’s highest efforts at getting to the truth of things.  It is the closest we can get to understanding reality.  If it is imperfect, it is because it is a human enterprise.  There are cases of ego or prejudice coloring theory or result.  There are also cases of outright fraud.  However, only in science does there exist a human-designed system to expose human-induced error: papers are published and reviewed; experiments must be repeatable by independent means; a consensus must be reached.  Pretty damn admirable for a bunch of hairless primates, I would say.  Consider this fine description of Science by the Naturalist E. O. Wilson:

“The power of science comes not from scientists, but from its method.  The power, and the beauty too, of the scientific method is its simplicity.  It can be understood by anyone, and practiced with a modest amount of training.  Its stature arises from its cumulative nature.  It is a product of hundreds of thousands of specialists united by the one binding commonality of the scientific method.  Few scientists know more than a small fraction of available scientific knowledge, even within their own disciplines.  But no matter:  their fellow scientists are continuously testing and adding to the other parts, and the entire body of scientific knowledge is easily available.  The invention of this remarkable engine of testable learning was the one advance in recorded human history that can be called a true quantum leap.  But it attained its preeminence relatively late in the geological life span of humanity, and only after the human intellect had traveled a long, tortuous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion.”

“The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson (page 104)

Since religion (according to conventional wisdom) is not testable by scientific means, it has been suggested that Religion is, therefore, its own “magisteria” — something, well, beyond science.  Hence — Science and Religion are separate spheres with little or no overlap.  That’s fine as far as it goes, as most mainstream religion isn’t in the business of miracle cures or claiming to raise the dead to life.  But many believers do accept the veracity (or possibility) of miraculous occurrences (wherein the laws of “nature” are suspended, or overridden by a higher spiritual authority) whether they’ve actually witnessed such an event personally or not.  So we live in a climate that is sympathetic to assigning to the supernatural any number of events or occurrences, large or small, that happen next door or around the world, regardless of their verifiable natural origin (take the earthquake in Haiti as the latest example).  In such a climate — where any such claim is given equal weight — how can we expect to make any progress on real problems that affect us?

I believe one of the major difficulties the average person has with incorporating scientific knowledge into their lives is a sense that the knowledge science brings us is a sort of “moving target” that grows ever more complex with each new reported scientific discovery.  This may be the grain of reason underlying the otherwise irrational view of scientific “truth” as “relative” (as compared to the supposedly “fixed” Truths of most religions) to the end that many don’t see scientific discoveries as fixed points upon which a sure foundation can be built.  I understand that.  For in a sense the terms and systems of classification of science are arbitrary grids that are placed between us (the observer) and the natural processes we seek to understand (just as the word for “cat” is used to identify that particular animal, but the letters “c.a.t.” would not be mistaken for the animal itself).  Scientists must then put a lot of energy into carefully defining the very specific terms that they employ so that they can be clearly understood by other scientists.  For the point of the entire endeavor is to allow a subject, theory or area of investigation to be discussed in a meaningful way.

As a corollary to understanding this idea, consider for a moment your average road atlas:  Though we don’t expect to trip over an actual border line when walking from one state to the next, the lines on maps are nevertheless useful and practical tools for dividing one state from another.  Of course on closer examination we’ll find that the residents of a small border town may well share much more in common (in terms of commerce and culture) with a nearby town in another state than they will with the residents of a larger city in the middle of their own state.  Nevertheless we don’t throw out or ignore these “man made” borders because we recognize the continuity it gives us regarding everything from laws to public services to personal identity.  We naturally understand, however, that life is more complex and varied than our state citizenship alone can describe, and so we break down our sense of community into ever more concise terms:  I’m from this town, I live in this neighborhood, my kids go this school, we attend this church (which is further broken down into which particular branch of your particular religion your church adheres to) and on and on.  So scientific classification is no different: it is a useful tool that gives us shared vocabularies and agreed-upon reference points for comparison and understanding.  The system is designed to expand with the inevitable influx of new and better knowledge — so concepts tend to move from the simple (early understandings) to the more complex (better understanding based on new and more evidence).

Science is unfairly criticized by the religious as being the product and progenitor (all at the same time) of a relativistic humanism that has as its goal the destruction of belief in God and the imposition of a cruel rational relativism that will wipe away all morality.  So how do we get from curious human beings trying to understand the world to unfeeling monsters devoid of all emotion and compassion?  It’s an interesting leap of logic, to say the very least.  A leap made possible by the framework of the religious mind.  Science is, in short, viewed as a competing proselytizing religion and therefore imbued with religious qualities and intentions it does not posses because the religious worldview can imagine with only great difficulty the unfamiliar human motivations of reason and rationality.

The most extreme accusations come, to be sure, from those most threatened by the encroachment of reason and rationality, namely those who ply their trade in the mysterious oceans of the unprovable: the Evangelist or those who have a financial or temporal power stake in the maintenance of “belief in belief”.  But part of the resistance is also keenly felt by their followers who sense (quite correctly) that their familiar view of the world is going to be challenged, and fear (not so correctly) that the consequences will be horrific.

There is, I believe, a certain healthy skepticism in us (particularly pronounced in us Americans, it seems, though also subject to irrational hijacking on occasion) as regards our government and large corporations.  And yet, while we express that mistrust, we nevertheless do not desist from availing ourselves of the considerable benefits we enjoy thanks to the innovation and manufacturing power of industry and the little appreciated (but extremely rare in human history) safety and stability that a functional government and economy provides.  We have the (rather recently achieved) luxury of calm and plenty in which to complain.

I think we are not much different from the huge Bengal tiger I watched at the San Diego Zoo one afternoon, pacing endlessly back and forth across the length of his “natural” looking enclosure, his huge head swinging from side to side, stopping at each end of his linear track to glance quickly upward to meet the eyes of whichever human was stopped to watch him at the time before returning to his numb routine: deprived of the day-to-day challenges of his natural habitat, the tiger had nothing to do with millions of years of evolved predatory behavior.  I later read that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. conducted experiments in which they discovered that the “pacing behavior” of bears there was reduced dramatically when food was hidden in logs (among other places), thus more closely approximating the bear’s natural activities.  In short: the tiger and bears were bored: They had nothing to do beside quickly eat the meals offered at mealtime and poop and sleep.
I’m convinced that we humans are no different from those bored bears: we seek security and comfort and ease (as we quite sensibly seek to avoid pain, conflict and unease), but we are not so removed from our hunter-gatherer past that we can so easily adapt to the amount of leisure time we have managed to cleverly create for ourselves.  It is a troubling admission to say out loud (after all our effort to find ease) that we have it too easy.  And so we seek stimulation to fill a void for which our long evolutionary past has not properly prepared us.

It seems, in fact, that our projection of intention onto the universe (one end result of which has been our belief in supernatural forces) is a side effect of the enormous processing ability of our large evolved brains: we don’t really have an “off switch” up there!  So now that we no longer have to run from saber-toothed tigers or cave bears, we’re a little bored ourselves and our minds turn to all sorts of fanciful imaginings.

The irony is not lost on me that — in my life as a fairly sedentary artist — I pay money for membership in a gym full of machines designed and manufactured to replicate the physical exertions my more “primitive” ancestors enacted as part and parcel of their everyday lives.  We develop diets and food additives to stave off (or at least slow down) the gradual fattening of our middles (that fattening possible only because of our amazing progress in agriculture, food preparation and safety).  We “work out” and seek recreation and stimulation to fill the years we now live long past the three decades or so most of our ancestors could have expected to see.

Our minds and reflexes evolved over millions of years to secure our survival.  The less quick, the less agile and the less hardy were plucked from our family tree by disease, disaster and toothy beast (i.e. “Natural Selection”).  As Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying of our current status in that contest: “Our pre-frontal lobes are too small, and our adrenal glands too large”.  Meaning we are modern human beings living in an age of relative safety from beast and invading horde, yet we still carry this giant bear-trap of a “fight or flight” mechanism that ends up kicking in while we’re driving in rush hour traffic, triggered by lower-level stimuli than a true threat to our survival.  We are, in essence (and beneath the thin veneer of our modernity) still looking for the attacking tiger lurking behind the next bush.

And this returns us to my initial plea for science: it is only through an understanding (and appreciation for) what Darwin called our “humble origins” that we can come to a true appreciation of what we really are, and how we really function.

A psychologist once told me of a conference speaker stating that “mankind’s last great evolutionary leap occurred during the last ice age”.  That thought opened my mind to seeing humans as modern descendants of ice age nomads.  Our seemingly intractable tribalism makes sense once you understand how much of our history we spent in small bands of extended family units (cities and nations are very recent arrivals in our experience).  There are countless other useful insights that can flow from such science-based understandings of how we got here.

I do not speak here of a pre-destination or determinism as to how humans will or should progress.  If history shows us anything it is that we are extremely adaptable.  In fact it is often as difficult to appreciate the differences between my “primitive” ancestors and my modern self as it is to accept the similarities.  For instance, our bodies have long ago adapted to cooked food.  The sheer volume of nutrients that cooking allowed us to consume played a large part in our ability to advance technologically.  (We’d have a hard slog going back to living off leaves and berries stripped from the plants of the forest, as the great apes do to this day).  Our advances in technology during the “Neolithic Revolution” may well have been a response to the new amounts of energy and free time we had that up to that point had been taken up with an endless grazing for raw calories!

Far from destroying our morality (or eroding its supposed basis in an eternal absolutes) I believe that understanding the science and history of human evolution gives us a much clearer understanding of how our ethical choices are made, and a deeper appreciation of the codes of social conduct we have discovered, developed and internalized as a species.  Far from destroying any sense of moral authority, it rather affirms the usefulness to social stability of our agreed-to laws and law enforcement (as they continue to protect us from what was once the much more common random violence of other humans).

(Want a picture of what our ancestors lives were like only several hundred years ago?  A great book on the evolution of our modern selves from the middle-ages is “The Civilizing Process” by Norbert Elias.  I recommend it as primer on just how recently the life of the average European was still — in many ways — short and brutish.)

Ignorance of science can be deadly.  I hardly find it noble to deny reality in order to preserve an ideology.  Our endless and (seemingly) harmless affection for unfounded conspiracy theories, UFO’s, “chem trails”, crystal healing, distrusting vaccines or what have you in practice keeps us from directing our creative energies towards things that really can make life better for us and our fellow humans.  While we seek stimulation in the silly (as we pace back and forth across our enclosures) half a million women die each year giving birth from avoidable complications, the globe continues to warm (at the very least in part due to us, it would appear) and almost a half of us Americans sit on our ass waiting for Jesus’ imminent return and the blessed end of this sinful world of ours.  Individual beliefs and mythologies are not unrelated to global events.  Science helps to reveal these connections: religion denies them.

Science is not the enemy.  Science is a tool for understanding, for making sense of discovery and for revealing the true mysteries of life for the benefit of us all.  It deserves attention, respect and support.  It does not deserve derision and demonizing demagoguery.  The one overarching magisteria that spans the realms of science and religion is our human existence and our individual experience of that existence.  Religion was, in essence, our early attempt at science, at understanding.  Religion is our invention.  It is a part of our heritage, our growth, and for a long time was the receptacle for our creative and literary energies.  In that, it deserves its own respect.  But we live in more complex times, in ever larger cities and nations with evolving complicated economies.  It is natural to pine for a mythical point in time when life was “simpler” (whether or not that time ever really existed).  But we live here now, in the age of science and reason, even as we shudder and struggle with shedding our superstitious skins.

Our blessing and our burden is that we are — truly — social animals.  We’re storytellers, afraid of the dark and fearful of death, and the more I ponder those aspects of our character the more I realize just how deep they go.  I could almost say it’s less a wonder that we are so given to superstitions as it is that we are capable of transcending them as much and as often as we do!

Still, here’s a vote for cultivating our reason and rationality, and taking another look at science, anthropology, archeology, genetics and biology for the understanding of our selves that such an investigation will give us.  Let religion have its place in our history, and let it contract of its own accord, leaving the natural world to the scientist that works on our behalf every day to understand it.

the not-so-reverend bob

(Copyright for commercial uses by Bob Diven, 2010)