Posts Tagged ‘luck’

SERMON: “Trimming the Family Tree” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

Although it’s easy (and correct) to critique religious views that place humanity at the logical end of a creation timeline (whether that creation occurred in the Biblical Garden of Eden or through hundreds of millions of years of evolution), it is worth taking a step back to consider that this teleological bias infests just about every human head, be they believer or scientist.

When (as a boy) I first learned about Neandertals, they were seen (along with every other early hominid) as our direct ancestors.  At that time, all different shapes and sizes of early primates and humans were just sort of crammed into a single family tree, with explanations abounding about how one evolved into the other and, eventually, to us.

Of course, it’s fair to be kind to these ideas (that are now clearly wrong), as we haven’t had all that many ancient human fossils to examine, and the technology to truly examine them scientifically has been developing rapidly over the last forty years.

As my geo-chemist friend pointed out with regards to studying the tectonic actions of Earth “We only have one data point”.  Meaning that we’ve only found one planet (so far) that has the qualities of Earth to study.  When it comes to our early human ancestors, we have a few more “data points” than that but, still, we don’t have all that many.

When a new fossil discovery hits the press, there is always a bold proclamation about how “everything we thought we knew” is thrown out the window, or an equally confident claim of where the fossil fits in our family tree.

But it is a testament to the steady work of science that all such announcements are eventually put through the wringer, and out the other end comes a more sober evaluation of what the new discovery can reliably tell us.

And so the sequencing of Neandertal DNA (quite a story of technology and tenacity in itself) has opened up new swaths of data from bones that we thought had already told us all that they could.

The story of the story we tell of the Neandertals is enlightening.  At first thought to be our classic “caveman” ancestor, brutish and dumb, they have had a sort of re-birth as noble, red-haired, cultured savages who may have been our equals (in their time).  Both of those descriptions are turning out to be a bit overdrawn, and it seems like we are settling down to an understanding that — though necessarily based on frustratingly few pieces of evidence — seems much more likely to be accurate.

In my short monologue "Forbidden Love of the Pleistocene" I tell the story of a doomed love affair between a Cro-Magnon man and a Neandertal Babe. Hey -- it could have happened!

For the Neanderthals now appear to be cousin to our Ice-Age “modern” human ancestors.  It also appears that (though highly evolved in their own right) they may have lacked a handful of key social and cognitive traits that many think made the difference when it came down to a question of “them or us”.

More importantly, it seems to me, we are coming to appreciate them for who and what they were, without the need to either demean or ennoble them out of our own emotional needs to feel guilt or superiority (after all, there is a chance that we played an active role in killing them off about 40,000 years ago).

So what about this “cousin” relationship?  Darwin predicted that it was Africa that was the nursery for modern humans, and he guessed this without a single ancient human fossil to go by.  Subsequent fossil finds (and modern DNA sequencing) have so far proven him right.  There are still some who hold a view that many populations of humans evolved in multiple regions on the planet, but the mainstream view now is one that we did, in fact, evolve in Africa before spreading out into the rest of the Earth.

But here’s where things have gotten interesting.  As always seems to be the case, when scientists first decided that we had, in fact, all “come out of Africa”, they looked for a single migration event that led directly to us.  It seems we can’t help but think that way.  But the science now supports a more nuanced view that, frankly, fits much better with how nature actually works.

Our current view, then, is that there have been lots of lines of humans through the millennium, most of them evolving in Africa, and occasionally migrating out of there where some groups found long-term success (the Neanderthals in the Middle East and Europe, Homo Erectus in China before we “modern” humans arrived).  There are signs in our DNA of a lot of cross-pollination between ancient humans in Africa, which makes sense when we look at other animal populations.  (The fact is that we can’t tell from fossils alone whether our ancestors had spectated to a point where they could no longer exchange genes.  It looks like they hadn’t, despite some surely dramatic morphological and cultural differences.  And, knowing humans as we do, there can’t be much doubt that we would find a way to have sex with just about anything that looked remotely like us).

The DNA evidence also seems to confirm that there was mixing of genes between the Neanderthals and the modern humans that first migrated into their areas (there is no sign of this mixing in modern African populations, nor of modern human DNA in Neanderthals), as well as some mixing going on between modern humans and Homo Erectus in Asia.

What we begin to see is the natural ebb and flow of reproduction among related species in a way that fits with what we observe in other animals.  And here is the key: it has taken us a while to really see ourselves as being “just like” the other animals.  (Even in science, we held on to an idea of our specialness, even when it kept us from properly interpreting the data of our origins).

But having at long last made that intellectual leap, we can now begin to appreciate what we think we know about our evolution.  The picture is complex and rather sobering.  For it turns out that there have, indeed, been countless groups of human varieties since we split off from our last common ancestor with modern apes (but even then, there was much cross-breeding for a very long time!).  If this is true, what happened to all of the other groups of “humans” that did not lead directly to us?  The answer is that they went extinct, in groups large and small.

But not too large, for it appears that the most critical factor in the evolutionary leap that we refer to as the Neolithic Revolution may have had almost everything to do with population size.

Modern studies of hunter-gatherer populations give us a picture of what happens to groups of humans when their numbers drop below a certain threshold: we revert to more primitive means, losing the gains in culture and technology that we achieve when we have more of our fellow humans to exchange ideas (and genes) with.  This, combined with our extended period of childhood (compared to other primates and, it is assumed, other early humans) may be what gave us the advantage over all of the other groups of our “cousins” that managed to hang on to their basic, set ways, for thousands of years but, in the end, could not adapt well (or rapidly) enough to avoid oblivion.

The nice (if we can call it that) thing about this conclusion is that it does make us feel a bit special for being, well, the ones that “won”.  On the other hand, there rests beneath this understanding the uneasy realization that we were incredibly lucky.  For the evidence also suggests that our lineage was down to just a few thousand individuals at times in our history (for more on this look up our “Mitochondrial Eve”).  It also tells us that perhaps Homo Erectus or even the Neanderthal’s might have done equally well had they ever had the right “breaks” that allowed their numbers to expand.

The other stunning part of our story is how we went from being a fairly dispersed species of low population density for pretty much all of our history to numbering in the many billions in an astonishingly short time.  That, somehow, once we got a foothold on our “modern” state of mind (and had developed the social structures and technology to support our increasing numbers) we went from one more smallish troop of naked apes to the dominant life form on the planet.

The “true” story of we modern humans is one of heartbreaking drama, and deeply humbling knowledge.  Entire species of our fellow humans went extinct at different times (the Neanderthals as recently as 38,000 years ago, Homo Florensis — the “Hobbit” — perhaps only 8,000!).  We lost our cousins (or drove them to the brink of extinction) the same as any other modern animal that stands as one of the survivors.

But we couldn’t even come to this picture of the many branches of our human family until we let go of the idea of a single-file, heroic march through time.  Only then could we see the evidence for what it could actually tell us.

This capacity: the courage to see ourselves as we really are, is a huge achievement for us as a species, and perhaps we must give most of the credit to the objectivity of science, and the scientists themselves who have had to fight the same self-centered tendency that is shared by their entire species.

As time goes on, we will continue to discover more fossils.  New technologies (and new knowledge) will wrest more information from those discoveries.  It may well be (it must be, in fact, highly likely) that there will be even more dramatic twists and turns to our human story.  But at least we are now, it seems, ready to hear the truth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Three Threads” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

(NOTE: Las week I promised “The Burden of Narrative” for this week’s Sermon.  With apologies, I’m delaying that one a week to bring you this one.  Thanks!)

It’s been a week of near religious enlightenment (fear not — I am speaking metaphorically), where — to multiply metaphors — the furnace of reality has burned away a bit more dross, and I find myself in a place of new-found clarity.

Of the several threads that have woven themselves together of late (boy, I’m pushing the whole metaphor thing here), the first has been this:  I have wondered for some time what the possible impacts on the quality of my life would be from the release of the last vestiges of my “spiritual” thinking.  (Though no actual intervening presence was being banished from my life, I had considered that there may nevertheless be practical, material effects of “belief” that I would no longer benefit from).  To frame the question in another way: “Would prayers to a non-existent god continue to be “answered” if one stopped believing in that God?” (since clearly, in such a case, whatever was “working” was working independent of any actual “god”).  Or to put a finer point on it, would the positive phenomenon associated with belief continue unaltered by a change in belief?

Confusing?  Yeah.  It kind of twists the brain.

In my case I was long past belief in god (so I already knew that the sun would still rise and food would still taste good, etc.), but I was still sorting through the concepts and notions (or “truths about myself”)  that I had picked up over the years since my primary declension from faith (including a few ideas from a post-Christianity psychic).

After all, it did seem as if my own intentions would sometimes create events and opportunities in my life (I think of Joe, Joe shows up at the coffee shop that afternoon, for example).  So as I began an actual list (I called it my “purge” list) of the various ideas I had carried around about who I was and what made my life “work” (with the intention of making each of them re-apply for their jobs, as it were), I wondered if I would see a decrease of happenstance, serendipity and “luck” in my day-to-day life.

Of course the obvious thing to say is that there is no empirical way to tell if any of the things that seemed to “work” in my life were truly effective in the first place (my own confirmation bias remained ever willing to do the heavy lifting for any belief that seemed to work enough of the time — see last weeks Sermon for more on that notion).  So perhaps what I was facing more a loss of a perception that has, it would appear, added to my general level of happiness.  Though unwilling to continue irrational beliefs just to pump up my mood, I nevertheless didn’t want to weaken my happiness if I could help it!  But I wondered if that was going to be the decision I’d have to face.

So it was nice to run across an article on a study on “luck” done by a British psychologist.  The gist of the study was that people who considered themselves “lucky” did, indeed, have better “luck”.  But the finding is not what it at first blush seems to be.  It is more a case of how a different way of perceiving the world enables self-described “lucky” individuals to notice details and opportunities that those that consider themselves “unlucky” will miss.  The “lucky” also tend to re-frame setbacks into positives (in the sense of “it could have been worse!”).  Of course, “unlucky” people take things in the darkest possible way.  Far from a call to irrational belief in a magic called “luck” (or some version of positive thinking) for its positive impact on our life, the article on the study seemed to me much more a testimony to the actual material, potentially beneficial effect from our own subjective perception of things as we encounter an un-caring, non-responsive reality called “life”.  In short, this reminded me that there is only reality and our interaction with it.  There is no third party.  But it did answer a bit of my nagging question about the actual “power” of positive beliefs.

I immediately thought about research a psychologist I know was conducting on infants that showed three basic types of responses to novel situations, which shook out to: 1) un-exited = un-interested; 2) excited = highly engaged and; 3) over-excited = too frightened to engage.  (Personally I’ve worked a lot over the years to view what used to be sheer anxiety as excitement, and found that I actually enjoy challenge and surprise to an extent I would not have imagined true when I was younger).

In essence, I had found the last piece of the puzzle on this issue I’ve been prattling on about:  there is an effect that flows from perception, but it is not a magical, mysterious power.  It is about being engaged and attentive, as free as possible from bias.  A realistic perception of reality is not going to be pessimistic, nor, frankly, optimistic.  In my case, I’ve exercised into health my own impulse toward making the best out of what I have, and cultivated a respect for my own valuation of my experience of life.  It looked like I’d be okay, belief or no.

Another thread was my continued engagement with TEA Party types.  On Facebook, for example, I would jump in on wildly-fringe-conspiratorial-anti-government posts with evidence and argument (which was pretty much like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest).  Along with these “debates” (much too high a term for the quality of discussion happening here), I had written a series of op/eds for the local paper where I took my basic stance in support of rational thinking and reliance on evidence and applied it to the TEA Party movement specifically and politics and culture in general.  And although I’d received a great deal of supportive comments from friends and strangers, it was an adjustment seeing my name being dragged through the mud in print and on-line by the intellectually aggrieved.  At the time, I absorbed the shock of it, and kept right at it, believing that the least (and best) I could do for my country and species was to stand up for reason and evidence against this tide of ferocious ignorance.  I was not completely comfortable with it, however.

But then — a couple days ago — a man I know asked me a serious question regarding this effort of mine on the local opinion page (which included attending the big Tax Day TEA Party Rally): “Was it worth it?”, he asked.

It was a thoughtful question, and I answered it in that spirit: “In the aggregate, yes”.  I had found a certain satisfaction in standing my ground while remaining reasonable, humane, and open to genuine dialogue.

But over the next days the impact of his question spread, and I told a friend (who’s running for political office) that I was re-considering the value of engaging in “debate” with people who don’t accept even the concept of evidence (as we would understand it); of minds that are so fearfully reactionary that I was spending all of my time swatting away wild untruths (that swarmed like flies over a trash can).  In short, I was swinging at things so far removed from an actual issue or thoughtful question that it was putting me in the precarious position of batting fastballs while trying to perch on a high, thin branch.  Sure, it was satisfying to make contact with one, but there were always five more coming.  My politician friend remarked, simply: “What’s the point?”

What’s the point, indeed.

Then, finally, this morning, as I was creating a painting in pastels on the street at the Farmer’s Market, a man I recognized (but didn’t really know) came up to me and spouted out some semi-profound quote about “Truth is the bully that everyone claims to be friends with!” and then promptly walked away.  What the hell?  I figured he’d read my op/eds.

And that’s when the threads came together for me:  I’m an evangelist, yes, but I’m not a missionary.  I have neither the time nor the energy to try to educate (against his or her will) a nativist, xenophobic, young-earth creationist evangelical (for example) on, well, the vast reality that surrounds him or her and which he or she dogmatically resists.  That is the work of a missionary.  A long-suffering, martyrdom-prone missionary.

And then I thought of “the church of bob”.

My job is not to convert the willfully ignorant masses (though they may yet overthrow every advance reasonable men and women have made):  My job is here, with all of you and anyone who is thoughtful, open and reasonable.  And though it was good to find I could play the role of a small-town Christopher Hitchens or political writer, I think my more effective strengths lie elsewhere.

So even as I work to re-focus public attention on the visual art I produce that actually (most of the time) pays my bills (and recognizing the risk of taking on another “truth about myself” that may come up for review in the future) I feel as if my “calling” to this “church” has been re-affirmed and refined.  It’s almost Biblical.  Or — dare I say it — “Boblical”?

It’s so nice to talk to you.  Thank you all.

t.n.s.r. bob