Posts Tagged ‘natural selection’

SERMON: “A Tyranny of Choice” by the not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

More than once I have stood in my local public library and considered all of the knowledge contained on all of the pages of all of the books that reside there.  Even in our modest municipal facility, I can feel the weight of the hundreds of volumes that I will never read, the stories I will never know, and the concepts I will never understand.  It is a rather stark reminder of the constraining power of time as it forces us to choose which opportunities we will spend the minutes and hours of our mortality upon.

And now we have the internet, and with it an amplification of an entire industry dedicated to the idea that what we human consumers lack is enough choice.  Every new personal device must now not only belong to us, but adapt to us, using algorithms to mimic an intelligence that can study and absorb our interests, needs and desires.  I wouldn’t say I find it terrifying, but it is troubling.  We have achieved a level of ease, affluence and convenience where each individual can be a petty tyrant of his own digital entertainment and informational domain.

Like all “progress” this is troubling in a paradoxical way: I do not like my options to be forcibly limited by anyone or anything, but at the same time, when are we going to recognize that we are doing to ourselves something not unlike training a bear to ride a bicycle or a chimp to talk in sign language.  Sure, with enough effort something that passes for rudimentary success can be achieved in either of those examples, but could it be argued that we had even modestly improved the quality of life for either the bicycling bear or the signing chimp?

Those who work in the technological fields (it would seem safe to assume) understand, or at least appreciate, science.  But science tells us that we are evolved mammals with quirky, limited brains.  True, we are not limited like a dog or a cow, but just because we operate on a higher cognitive level does not in any way mean that we have found a way to transcend our evolved biology (though there are those hoping to achieve just that through technology).

Unlike cable t.v., the ocean only has one channel.

Unlike cable t.v., the ocean only has one channel.

Sometimes when I open my laptop I sense the presence of a vast collection of human creative and intellectual output (and a lot of cat videos) spread out before me, and I feel it’s seductive siren-song of limitless possibility as I choose the one item (at a time) to give my full attention to.  (And make no mistake: we are not hard-wired to multi-task in anything like the way that we imagine we can.  No.  The best we can do is switch back and forth between competing stimuli, it’s just that some of us are a little bit better at rapid switching than others).  And I have something like my experience of standing in the information ocean of my library described above, only on steroids.

I think we are rushing down a road of rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to choice.  This doesn’t mean that we can do anything to stop it, really.  But it does mean that our yearning for ever more choice is bringing with it challenges that evolution has not prepared us for.  And this is the challenge of plenty.

Admittedly, there is a certain kind of pleasure in excess — in having way more than we can eat, or watch or listen to.  But this is perhaps an artifact of the many episodes of want that we’ve experienced in our evolution (this could be a cognitive analogue to our “Ice Age” body’s propensity to store fat so easily).  But despite our constant yearning for ease and plenty, ease and plenty in larger doses do not fit well with our lean, animal natures (physical or cognitive).  For isn’t it true that we appreciate the company of others most when we’ve experienced loneliness; food when we’ve been hungry; safety when we’ve been in danger?

We humans are unique in being the animals that are both aware of their existential dilemma (mortality) and have a superior technical ability that allows us to build ways to satisfy almost any desire we can generate (money may not buy you love, but it can buy a lot of things that are pretty darn close).  In essence, we create machines first for work, and then for pleasure.  The first creates wealth and leisure time, the second is the way we spend our newly-acquired (in historic terms) time and money.

This is the point where I should wrap things up with an answer to our dilemma of choice, but I don’t think there is one.  Each of us has to negotiate our own balance between the competing tensions of want and plenty — between our imagined ideal of ease and the biological reality of our physical minds and bodies.  (I, for example, pay money to belong to a gym where I exercise my body as a separate activity to make up for the ease of my daily work that would otherwise allow my frame of bone and muscle to degrade into a fatty, unhealthy lump).  And just to spice things up a bit, we have to work these things out in an environment where it is not just our money, but our time and attention and desires that are the most sought-after commodities.

We are drawn to attractive stimuli as much as any raven or laboratory mouse, but we are no longer dependent upon the whims of nature to provide the things that we crave the most (for their rarity, at least in nature — in our case, fats, sugars and produced entertainment).  It is actually an odd state of affairs for a human such as I to be able to sit down, turn on a machine, and search out a thousand videos of only that one thing I really, really like watching, and then watch it over and over and over as much as I want to, until I don’t want to anymore, and have to find something else that tickles my fancy.

I’m not one of those wags who will decry such a state as inferior to some other, more noble way of living.  Who am I to say?  This is just how things are in our lives right now (in our society, anyway).  In that way, we are no different from our ancestors who adapted to a life among domesticated plants and animals, where for the first time humans had the chance to get fat from eating too much.

Evolution has not stopped with us.  We may have found ways to protect ourselves from the more basic ravages of natural selection, but in doing so we have only created other evolutionary pressures in the form of our own manufactured technology.

The grand experiment of life on Earth continues and, like each of our ancestors that came before, it remains for us to make our own choices of how we spend our time here.  It’s just that the act of choosing itself has become much more complicated for more humans than it has ever been before.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Wonder Beyond the Veil” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

If you stop to think about it, the fact that I am writing my thoughts into a sentence that you can read and understand is nothing short of amazing.  As far as we can tell, such acts of communication are not occurring anywhere else in our solar system.  And even on our small planet, teeming with life, you and I are members of the only species that reads and writes (though whales and dolphins may very well have their own book-of-the-month club that they are very adept at concealing from us).

We naturally take for granted the things that seem to come naturally to us.  We don’t have the time, frankly, to sit in wonder at every little thing that — were we to see it in its true historical or biological context — would blow our ever-lovin’ mind.  So we spend the time we must learning how to walk and talk and drive and sculpt and dance and compute and then just get on with living our life.

But one of these times while you’re walking from your car into your house, thinking about the next thing on your to-do list, consider what underlies these regular acts that seem so effortless to us.

Walking upright is a good start.  That is quite an evolutionary change for a body of muscle and bone that began as a bacteria that managed to clump together enough to become, eventually, an actual body of a lobe-finned fish that adapted to walking on land, then developed into a small mammal, then a primate and then the upright hominid that was our great great great great grandmother.

And what about the air that flows so easily into your lungs?  It’s easy to think of that air as having no mass at all, but of course it does.  The one-ton weight of the atmosphere over our heads weighs down upon us every moment, but we don’t even notice it.  Our bones and muscles have evolved under that weight (not all of which is, exactly, pressing “down” on us) so that our density and shape and mechanical arrangements are so well suited to air’s “mass” that we only sense when the breeze blows it across our face, or when we stick our hand out the window of our fast-moving car and play our hand against the force of the air compressing in front of it .

This is where creationists stop one step short of a true sense of wonder, and invert reality when they decide to praise God for making the world so perfect for us to live in.  It’s quite the other way around, I’m afraid.  The world was not made for us.  The reality of evolution is that we were “made” for the world that we evolved in, or — more precisely — that we were “made” (evolved) in the world as it already existed.  That is the power of evolution as the result of natural selection: the things that work well in a given environment have a better chance of being preserved in reproducing life forms than those that don’t.

One could argue that the original conditions that were made possible by earth’s particular composition and location in relation to the sun were “made” just for us, but that would be pushing things more than just a bit.  For there is no evidence of intention in anything that exists — other than the animals, like ourselves, that possess consciousness.  What we can say with absolute confidence is that the conditions that came to be on Earth were hospitable to the beginning — and continuation — of biological life.  And knowing — as we now do — just how rare of an occurrence such a state of affairs is in the known universe, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer luck of it all.

But the idea of such cosmic, existential “luck” really bothers a lot of people.  And so there arises in humans a deep cry for intention, and a purpose for our existence that must be rooted in some larger intelligent force.  I hear this from Christian friends who are sincerely baffled by the notion that existence can, well, exist without an intelligent, interested source.  (What they are really concerned about is how one could deal with this reality in an emotional and intellectual sense).   But this impulse toward religious belief is, I believe, an artifact of the way we have mentally and emotionally processed our physical reality over the generations, and has everything to do with our brain-based consciousness and absolutely nothing to do with the physical world.  It is a “software” issue.

Be that as it may, human belief systems are a definite social and cultural reality that is deeply embedded in our intellectual life.  And old ideas die hard.

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a "voice in the wilderness".

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a “voice in the wilderness”.

I have often wondered at how religious belief survived the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But others have pointed out that the end of the earth-centric view of the universe should have been enough to knock the pins out from under the truth claims of the church.  Right they are.  And I’ve just been reading about the intellectual and spiritual crisis that the discovery of the Americas caused for the Europeans (in “The Great Divide”, reviewed here this week).  For here was an entirely new world (filled with people) that — because the discovery of its existence came with no hint or mention in ancient literature or biblical texts — was completely unexpected and shocking.  It took Europe and the church a few hundred years to really get used to the idea.  And so it goes.

Every new scientific discovery erodes ancient religious claims about our physical reality.  I think that is indisputable (at least in a general sense).  But, seen anthropologically, this is not surprising: almost all of our early philosophy and religious ideology was developed in a context of deep ignorance of the inner workings of biology, cosmology and geology.  Fortunately for us “westerners”, the evolution of Christianity took a course that embraced Greek thought, and led us to the idea that the “one God” was a god who had created a nature that could be understood (as He could be understood) through continuing study (Islam — and the shamanistic religions of other cultures — held that all that could be known had already been revealed in holy books, and to seek additional knowledge was to blaspheme).

In this way, the evolution of thought in the “Old World” of Europe and Asia was open to the discoveries of science, at least until those discoveries began to bring the revealed wisdom of scripture into question.  But by then the cat was out of the bag, as it were, and, despite the excommunications and heresy trials, scientific discovery has became our primary source for reliable knowledge about reality.

Be that as it may, actual non-believers (in God or in “divine purpose” generally) remain the minority, even in America.  Most people believe in God.  And most of those believers, whether they realize it or not, tacitly accept as true scientific descriptions of the world they inhabit, without realizing the profound implications of those scientific truths.  The result being that the majority of humans, to my mind, take for granted the true miracle of their existence as a thinking, feeling, personality in a discreet physical body living on a planet hospitable to such an existence.  No, to them a wonder of this magnitude (if they give it a thought) is not nearly enough.  They require (for their sense of well-being) that there be a single great god of the universe who is just like them, and who, despite all of his necessarily awesome responsibilities and powers, must reliably bend an ear to any individual’s urgent prayer request for a good parking spot at the mall.

But the rather amazing (and counter-intuitive) point of all of this should be plain by now: the believer in God, by holding fast to a religious view of existence, actually limits their capacity to experience the true awe of seeing creation for what it really is: an expanding universe of a scale we cannot truly comprehend; a tiny, blue planet of water and air and elements born in exploding stars; the continuous, persistent non-random selection from random genetic changes that, over time (and under changing environmental pressures), transforms a bacteria into a fish, a fish into a mammal, and mammals into elephants and whales and humans that, after millions of years develop language and then an alphabet and then the technology that allows this one human to write his thoughts for other humans to read and understand.

In the larger scheme of things, one has to ask, what does it matter if people believe in God or angels (or fairies in the garden, for that matter)?  It’s not like adults playing pretend or believing in magic is going to slow or speed the final, fatal blossoming of our sun, or the eventual contraction of our universe.  No — we are blessedly powerless on those scales.  But where we are powerful is in our effect on the quality of our own lives, and, potentially, the lives of others.

And so it’s none of my business if one of my fellow humans is comfortable in a world governed by a god of their choosing.  But when so many live in that kind of world, one has to speak up for that which is obscured by the veils of religious belief.  There was a time in the evolution of religion that called for a “voice in the wilderness”, a “John the Baptist”.  What’s needed now is more “John the Scientists” to stand by the doorway that science has opened for us in the wall of human ignorance, pointing the way to the unseen wonders that await beyond.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Looking at My Own Species” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

As I continue to explore the implications of a science-based view of existence, I want to consider an issue I might classify as “quietly dramatic” — the way in which a materialistic perspective shapes my view of my own species.

If the survey numbers are to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt them), then it would appear that most of our species believes in the existence of a personal, active, supernatural deity that had either everything (or a great deal) to do with “creating” our planet, the solar system, the universe and, well, us.

This is not news.  Most of the people I know believe in some form of spirituality, whether it be the traditional God or a more diffuse form of cosmic intelligence that is capable of acting on our behalf.

And although some would disagree with me, I take the considered stand that there is nothing in the discoveries of science that would support either of these notions.  Of course you would be correct to point out to me (should you want to) that neither is there anything in the realm of science that can completely disprove those same spiritual notions.  Agreed.  But if we were to make a chart of two columns with one being “Evidence for PURELY NATURAL causes of just about EVERYTHING” and the other for “Evidence for EXTERNAL, SPIRITUAL causes of EVERYTHING (or, well, anything)”, then column 1 would be packed with a lot (if not all) of scientific discovery, and column 2 would be empty (I’m talking about actual evidence here, not our personal subjective experiences that we often interpret as being “divine” in origin).

In response to this evidentiary imbalance, there has arisen the “non-overlapping magisterium” argument that allows for two different “types” of data to be applied to two different “kinds” of reality.  This argument rests on the assumption that spiritual phenomenon exist outside of the natural world and are, therefore, impossible to measure by any of the tools of science.  This is at best a polite fiction, I think, as it allows us to have slices of our scientific and spiritual cake on the same plate, as it were.  But I don’t think this argument holds up to “modern” reality.  And even if the notion of spirituality occupying a realm beyond the reach of science were a tenable position in the past, I think it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain in the face of continuing scientific discovery.

All of which leaves one such as myself in the rather awkward position of dealing with the reality that not just a few, but most of my fellow humans believe (often rather deeply) in completely imaginary things.

How can this be?  Especially taking into account the rather high esteem we have for ourselves in the “great chain of being”?

Consider for a moment the age you and I live in, for we live in a time that is unique in human history.  Not just because we can look up cat videos on YouTube, but because we are the first generation to know so much incredible factual information about where we came from.  Seriously: every week there is an article trumpeting new discoveries about the origins and evolution of life on earth.  I read a steady stream of newly-published books (written for a general audience) that work at explaining the mind-bending wonders of how our planet was formed, or what the latest fossils are suggesting about the meandering course of the natural selection that eventually produced birds from dinosaurs and humans from fish.

But at the same time, there is not simply (an understandable) ignorance in the face of this flood of ever-surprising discovery, but determined resistance to new conceptions about ourselves that is organized, well-funded and determined.  These “push-back” campaigns from religious groups employ the rather frightening tactic of attacking the credibility of the very foundations of the scientific method.  In a sense they attempt to portray scientifically-gleaned evidence as nothing better than one godless human’s perverted opinion.  And it’s working.  Clearly, despite their professed belief that the ways of God are beyond science, science itself must be silenced because of the (actual and perceived) impact it is having on the foundations of religious belief.

Mostly we see this in the “climate change” debate.  This is less a true debate than a bunch of actual scientists on one side, and a bunch of commercial interests and believers in personal liberty and religious fundamentalism on the other whose beliefs determine the reality they are willing to accept.  The religious, at least, see science as the evil opposite of themselves, making the huge mistake of taking faith in religion to be the intellectual equivalent of faith in careful science.  But their arguments find fertile ground in the minds of millions of Americans.  Americans that have some understanding of their religion, but less understanding of science.

In the ancient battle between competing religious mythologies, science — actual science — is regarded as no more than a new myth-on-the-block.

And in this is the disquieting implication that the majority of our fellow humans who are living their lives, making decisions about who they elect to office (and the issues that they subsequently badger their elected officials about) are profoundly ignorant of the actual physical reality of their lives and the world we live in.  And it would appear that in this ignorance irrational belief not only persists, but prospers.

And so it becomes tricky to figure out just how to view these, my fellow humans.  Our species has produced (and continues to produce) stunning examples of artistic beauty, technical prowess, sheer courage, generosity of spirit, philosophical insight and scientific discovery.  And yet we are also a species of tribal warfare, ignorant fear, short-sighted selfishness and appalling cruelty.

Though the religious would disagree with me on this, it’s clear to me that, on the spiritual side, there is more heavy lifting to do to explain the mysterious disparity between our species’ highs and lows, especially when humans are held to be the special creation of an all-knowing deity.  On the scientific side, reality is accepted — as it is — as a problem to be studied that will (one hopes) yield more and more answers and explanations over time.   But for all of us, there is only the one reality of our existence on this planet, a reality that carries with it the ever-present potential for great achievement, or the bubbling over of our darker ingredients into human-generated chaos or social upheaval.

For me, a scientific, materialist view of my species gives me the comfort of recognizing and understanding a certain physical reality, and frees me from any added angst of layered-on spiritual mysteries.  But on the other hand, it also lays bare the incredible difficulty of tackling the profound challenge it would be to eliminate evil, say, from the world, especially when most of my fellow humans believe in the existence of an invisible mystery — a belief that actually inhibits the capacity to rationally interpret reality.  In truth, the real challenge, then, is much greater than the imagined spiritual one (which God is going to take care of anyway, once he makes a “new” heaven and earth).  And so I think that the materialist can not, in the end, be in any way accused of taking the “easy” way out.  Believers in God may think that non-believers have taken a lazy short-cut, (and have therefore earned some extra punishment in the afterlife) but, really, I don’t think they know what the hell they’re talking about.

To be honest about it, I’d have to say that eliminating God from the picture (though it has, for me, deeply affirmed my “right” to existence) reveals life on Earth to be a bit, well, tenuous.  And though life itself will likely go on for a long, long time, that doesn’t mean that we humans will.

There is only one reality, and it is a natural one.  So the true difference between spirituality and materialism is perspective, and the way our different sets of perceptions color our view of the one reality that we all share.  It is less and less of a mystery to me why we humans are so damn religious, and why so few choose to go it “alone” without the comforts of irrational belief.  In a way I feel a bit the detached scientist studying a curious and fascinating species, only with the sometimes unsettling awareness that I am one of that same species.  Good and bad, high and low, I have met the humans, and they are us: Noble and petty, rational and cuckoo, the most impressive and maddening life form to have evolved in the last few billion years.

t.n.s.r. bob

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: “A Fish to Hook?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Though I identify myself as an atheist, when it comes to the heart of my ethics, I’m a humanist.  I tend towards pragmatism when it comes to social issues, and I embrace a humanistic view as it seems to be the best of all possible approaches to making life as good as it can be for as many people as possible.  I recognize the enormous potential we humans have for cooperation and altruistic behavior.  We are capable of being very kind to each other and, on occasion, rising above the raging desire for short-term advantage and choosing, instead, to delay our instant gratification for a reward that we are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to share with others, even strangers.

As you can see by the way I describe the “good” in us humans, I do not shy away from the bad.  How can I?  I am human too, and I know all too well the impulses in my own consciousness that are necessarily modulated by that lately-added lump of brain tissue in my frontal lobes.  My motives for self-understanding are no more or less noble than my own social survival and hope for success in life and love (the two go together for us social primates).

All religions recognize the cognitive tensions (the result of mediating conflicting desires) that are our natural inheritance.  To me this tension is a not-surprising product of our natural evolution, while to the religious it is the result of sin entering into the world through our defiance of God.  Leaving aside the God idea for a moment (and looking instead at the actual evidence of our origins) why should it shock us to find powerful animal reactivity in us when we have spent most of our evolutionary history as animals living in the wild like any other?  Have you considered just how recent is our rise to modern human status?  Or the exponential increase in our numbers and multiplication of our technical and cultural achievements that is even now sweeping us forward like a flood toward our future?

Religions base their doctrines and orthodoxies on the ins and outs and ups and downs of human nature.  (They have to if they are going to a) appeal to humans, and; b) be of any practical use whatsoever).  But a mark of religions is their consistent inability to resist the temptation to re-brand whatever problems they aim to fix (or the solutions they offer) as something unique and special unto themselves.  This is not the spreading of truth: this is commercialism and team-building for the sake of building a brand.

I think Humanism is our best shot at doing the best for the most.

Humanism, on the other hand, does not (I think) go about things in that way.  It continually throws people back upon their own naturally-derived (and therefore already-owned) resources, while encouraging those that have a surplus to share with those that (through the vagaries of genetics or place of birth) have a deficit.  Churches often work to help the poor and the needy, but they are always doing it in part to increase the size and power of the church.  As the late Christopher Hitchens liked to point out, they may claim to have their eyes on the rewards in the next life, but they sure seem to spend a lot of time building up kingdoms in this one.

How many times in my Christian years was I told “the fields are white for harvest”, as if people were stalks of wheat to be gathered with sickle and wagon?  Or exhorted to be a “fisher of men”, as if people are fish to be caught with bait, hook or net and gathered into the boat?  Think about what this says about how the unsaved are viewed by the saved.

Do you want to know why American Evangelical preachers lash out so vehemently at “secular humanism”?  Because humanists are out there offering every single benefit that religion offers without the small print, the hidden costs, and the requirement to sign away your reason, your autonomy, and your eternal soul (these same Evangelicals often have as little sympathy for the religious humanists in their own ranks).

As an aside, this all points to one of the basic flaws in this whole “church of bob” concept (at least in terms of a business model): I have nothing at all to hold over anyone who might come here to read, enjoy, learn or laugh.  I have no threat of hell to wield, or any hint of a deity’s displeasure (there are very few, I think, concerned about incurring the decidedly temporal “wrath of bob”).  That’s why this “church” will never work like a real church (and it is why I’ll never be the slick preacher driving his new Escalade up to his mansion with his trophy wife, just counting the days until my evangelistic empire is brought to ruin by a shocking sexual scandal — sigh).

I go back and forth on my feelings for humans.  On the one hand, we sort of deserve whatever we get in terms of fouling our own global nest.  But, then, why should I be any more harsh on the human species of animals than I am on any other?  Did the dinosaurs “deserve” to go extinct?  No.  Yes.  I don’t know.  Anything that is living has earned its moment in the sun through dint of the eons of sheer survival and adaptation that is represented by the surviving DNA in every single living organism (including you and me).  And that is why — being an atheist and a humanist — I mourn and I ache for a life that is cut short by the willful act of another.  What right does one human have to knowingly make life more miserable for others (especially when they use some bullshit religious justification for it like: “Well, if they were innocent, God will make it up for them in Heaven” — nice)?  (I am not addressing, here, the spectrum of discomforts that some humans have with the fact that our very survival requires us to consume other life forms, be they animal or vegetable — one more “tension” we must deal with in life).

So when I attack religion (which I often do, seeing it as but the fat middle of the bell curve of human irrational beliefs of all kinds), I am not attacking my fellow humans, but rather hoping to appeal to (and encourage) our “better natures”.  Some will claim that this is what religion does as well, and I will allow that for some people religious conversion does serve as an entry-level introduction to not acting like a complete and total selfish prick.  But because religion always has (at its heart) a fearful view of the world, an enshrined sense of self-loathing, and a preening need to be the only game in town, the results are ever going to be mixed.

I think humanism, then, is the way to go.  It is not perfect — for it will always be rooted in the reality of actual human behavior — but it is the most reality-based mix of hope and evidence, poisoned the least by denial and absent the religious demand for human debasement before the throne of an imaginary totalitarian in the sky.  No humanist will ever think of a person as a fish to hook, or a sheaf of wheat to chop with a scythe.

But, then, it’s not easy to take full responsibility for consciousness — for existence.  Too little attention is paid to the challenge that simply being alive and aware entails, I think.  Like the button I saw in a store last week that said “Stuck in that awkward phase between birth and death”.  Truer words could not be spoken.

All I’m saying is this: let us each do the bit that we can to make that “awkward phase” a bit less awkward (or miserable or tragic) for both ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If we end up losing a god who doesn’t seem think that highly of us anyway in the process of achieving the fullness of our humanity, is that such a bad thing?

I, for one, don’t think so.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Brain: A User’s Guide — Abridged” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

WHAT OUR BRAINS ARE GOOD AT:

Keeping us from stepping on a rattlesnake.

Getting us to throw up when we see someone else do it.

Thinking about sex.

These are survival responses: fight or flight; mirror neurons that pay detailed attention to what those close to us are feeling, experiencing, or seeing, and; reproducing to ensure the continuation of the species.

What our brains are not good at:

Critically examining things we hear from others.

Perceiving reality without a thick filter of magical belief.

Not being fearful.

Our brains are physical machines that have evolved with us over millions of years.  They exist because they are good at keeping us alive and fruitful.  We exist because they work as well as they do.

When we started using tools to aid our survival (around 6 million years ago), we were on our way toward becoming the dominant life form on the planet that we are today.  Our advancement, however, was slow.  But over time our cleverness led us to things like fire and cooked food (which fed our growing brains while reducing the need for our huge ape-like chewing muscles, which then allowed our brain cases to expand to the limits finally imposed on them by natural selection — namely the width of the human female’s pelvis).

We are the tool-making ape, and because of the protections we have built for ourselves from the forces of nature (extreme heat, cold and disease), and our ability to alter the environments we live in (as well as the plants and animals we live with), we have spread out and flourished.  In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.

This is no small success.  But we are mistaken to lean as much as we do on the idea that our brains are more than our most advanced sensory organ — that our minds are something that transcends the physical world.  They don’t.

As I sat on a park bench today, watching a pair of grackles chase a squirrel from the lawn beneath “their” tree, and then return to their mix of mating and feeding behavior, I was reminded that, if you get right down to it, the “purpose” of life is to continue to live.  Life, by any definition, is a complex process that exists only by dint of its ability to feed itself and reproduce.  Even the most mindless of life is propelled by this innate impulse.  And we humans are no different.

But, of course, we are very different when it comes to cognition. All animals have brains, some small, some large.  And some of those animals are eerily similar to us in having a social sense and an emotional interior life.  Some even make simple tools.  But none have the self-awareness that we humans do, and I think that gives us a very singular set of existential problems to deal with.

We humans have huge brains. Okay, maybe not quite THIS huge!

In particular is the question of “why us?”  Our attempts to answer that existential question have created thousands of gods, thousands of religions to go with those gods, and creation myths aplenty — all of them stories with us at the center, revealing some satisfying aspect of our “true” purpose here on Earth.

Of course one of the problems with that approach is that we are not divine in origin (at least as far as we can tell), nor are we “intelligently designed”.  What we are is  “naturally selected” (a process that can bring about results that easily mimic what we might consider “design”).  And what we generally end up with, then, is a lofty narrative of our special creation draped over the pulsing drive of the survival-insuring primitive animal brain.  This is a recipe for conflict and cognitive dissonance on a fairly grand scale!

The fact that we are living in an age of technology and science lends support to our already-elevated view of our brain’s “designed” perfection.  Therefore we consistently overestimate the power of the human brain — to the point that many believe that with the right amount of practice, we can project ourselves across the universe, read other minds or predict the future.  At the same time we under-estimate some of the real powers of the brain: such as our natural animal wariness that can create debilitating fears, irrational thoughts and faulty perception.  Both are problematic.

The predicament that we are in is this: we are alive, we are conscious, and the only organ we have for navigating that rather stunning state of existence is a multi-layered, quirky sensory organ that retains its most primitive life-preserving functions even as it serves as the source of our most lofty, artistic and humane expressions.  Darwin wasn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he said that “…man with all his noble qualities …still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. ”  We do.  Oh, indeed, we do.

The truth is that we humans can seem to be rational only as a sort of last resort.  As I observe the battle lines of ideological debate in our current Presidential campaign, I am mostly struck by how many people are willing to take, at face value, almost any falsehood as long as it promises to support their belief-dependent view of reality.  If I could put one idea into the brains of all of my fellow citizens, it would be to embrace the true challenge that ownership of an evolved conscious mind entails, and learn to use our brains as effectively as possible (which has to include an awareness of the many quirks, biases and sensory mistakes that it is subject to).

It is a paradoxical challenge, this: using one part of our brain to figure out where the other parts of that same brain might be leading us astray.  But this is our reality: everything about our consciousness is playing out within the confines of our physical bodies.  (Though little wonder — since it can feel at times like there’s more than one person inside our head — so many of us are willing to imagine the different parts of our own consciousness as external beings, be they demons, spirits or angels).

Our brains may not be perfect, but they are certainly remarkable.  We just have to remember that they can rule us (fear) as much as we rule them (reason).  The best we can do is come to an understanding — an alliance, if you will — with the several aspects of our brain, and recognize the reality of what is happening inside our skulls.

t.n.s.r. bob

[CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: My statement “In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.” is incorrect in that modern humans had already occupied regions of the Middle East and Central Europe before this time, but our global expansion has occurred within the last 15,000 years.  — t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Real Story of Creation” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

There is one, huge, honking reason why we humans have trouble with the idea of evolution, and it is a reason that I think we give scant attention to: it is the fact that we exist.  Because we exist and — more importantly — are conscious of our existence, we can’t help but examine ourselves, find ourselves wonderful, and think that somehow our wonderful existence must — on some level at least — have been the point of everything that has come before us.  We are the reason for, well, life.  “Clearly” we think, “the universe had us in mind from the very start?”

"Why" the reverend asks, "should it make us feel less 'special' to have evolved from earlier life forms?"

This sounds silly and overblown, but is it really?  Don’t we start any consideration of our origins with the premise that we must find a system of “creation” that would clearly lead up to us?  In other words, the process of evolution must be as complicated as we see ourselves to be, which, under the influence of our natural solipsism, means there has to be an intelligence behind it all that is at least as clever as we are (but only more so).  And suddenly, we have replaced the idea of “life” having had us in mind from the start with the idea of The God of the Universe (who, apparently, had nothing better to do with 13.75 billions years of his eternal existence, and decided to run a grand chemical experiment to see if he could turn mass and energy into living hominins who would, occasionally, tell him how great he was).

This is not, I’m afraid, an understatement of the self-centeredness of our species, nor of the absurdity of the proposition of our own divine creation.  The truth is that we can only hold such irrational ideas because we are a natural storytelling (and believing) bunch of hairless apes, and there remains much mutual support for such beliefs among us profoundly-social primates.

But the problem is this: we have built back from the end of the story, assuming that the story began as a tale with us as the ending.  Even more fundamentally, we assume there was a story in the first place.  There wasn’t.  There was (and is, if you want to be absolutely clear about it) only nature.

By nature I mean purely natural forces, and the biological, geologic and meteorological products of those forces.  For there wasn’t even “nature” (at least in the sense that we understand it today) 5 billion years ago.  Only the cosmic beginnings of what would coalesce into our planet.

Seriously.  We now know this.

Our planet formed from dust and debris and matter and gravity and atoms and elements born in other exploding stars (that “made” the stuff our planet is made from).  This is how all of the planets and stars were formed — each of them “local” events (when compared to the vastness of the expanding universe).  And, after untold millions of years of “forming”, the mix of solid crust, liquid water (and the chemical composition of that water), the fact that we had a solid core to produce a magnetic field to hold our atmosphere in place against the forces of solar winds, and time (lots and lots of time — about a billion years after the earth “formed”), something began to stir.  Or maybe not even stir.  In the beginning it was simple photosynthetic bacteria that began to occupy the earth.

And for the next 2 billion years that was it.  That was the only life on the planet.  For 2…billion…years.  What kind of creation story is that?  What kind of intelligence is behind that?  There is the popular (perhaps apocryphal) quote that says “If there is a God, he must be inordinately fond of beetles” (having created hundreds of thousands of species of them).  But perhaps we should change that to God being “Really, really fond of simple photosynthetic bacteria”.

Here’s the rundown of the history of the evolution of life on earth as laid out by Jerry A. Coyne in “Why Evolution is True”:

“If the entire course of evolution were compressed into a single year, the earliest bacteria would appear at the end of March, but we wouldn’t see the first human ancestors until 6 a.m. on December 31.  The golden age of Greece, about 500 BC, would occur just thirty seconds before midnight.”

Most creationists either do not know the evidence for all of this, or are actively resisting it.  I expect more of the latter than the former, for even the ignorance is fed, at some level, by an innate resistance to the notion that we aren’t special in the way we prefer to imagine.

But of course we are special, and by any measurement pretty damn amazing results of a non-random process of selecting random mutations in living, reproducing species.  But we have to be clear that this is what happened.  All it takes, it turns out, for evolution to occur is the presence of DNA that is exchanged and re-combined through (often sexual) reproduction.

Mutations in DNA happen all the time, all over the genome.  But no-one is deciding what mutations will occur.  This is truly a random process — there is no predicting when and where it will happen, nor what the result will be.  Mutations are often the result of biological “copying errors” (take that, perfection of design).  But whatever the cause, those mutations are then expressed in the developing individual, and, once expressed, have entered into the race for survival, living, reproducing, competing and dying on the stage of life where natural selection exerts its unforgiving force on every living thing.

Yet despite what every creationist seems to believe, natural selection is not an intelligence (though it creates an outcome that mimics an intelligence).  It is simply describes the process whereby the reality of climate, food supply, competition for resources, competition for mates, and an animal’s innate suitability for a specific niche in the world place that animal under selective pressure.  Those that are better at surviving tend to survive and pass on their particular set of mutations.  Those that aren’t, don’t.  But conditions are always changing, so today’s winner will not always be the winner.  Dinosaurs were winners for 160 million years, but then they lost.  Big time.  Right now, we’re the winners.  Right now.

Once you take the time to understand what evolution is, and what it is not, the arguments against it are shown to be what they actually are: nothing.  I mean it — there are no valid arguments against evolution.  There are only dodges based in fear, ignorance and credulity (because of the things we want to believe about ourselves).

The reality is that there was never any plan or system in place.  Everything that we see around us is the eventual balance of forces that tends to come about over time.  Earth settled into its shape because of the materials it is made of, which set the levels of gravity where they are.  The dominant cosmic lement of carbon became the building block of all biological life.  Our bodies took the shape they did because of the mix of air we evolved in, and the gravity that gives us weight.  Our eyes evolved to work well in the kind of light we experience, our guts to the kind of food we can eat.

We are constantly taking in nutrients, feeding the bacteria that still makes up half of our cellular weight.  We carry in our DNA huge collections of genes that have been switched-off by random mutations (left in the “off” position by the selective pressures of natural selection).  In many ways, our complex and inspiring bodies are nothing more than the result of a survival “arms race” (as Dawkins put it) that began with the first bacteria competing for a place in the sun.

And DNA, it turns out, builds up entire bodies by completely local actions.  There is no blueprint, but each gene and protein does it’s own little thing and, before long, voila, there is a new living being.

How can this be?  It can be because we evolved from the simplest of life forms that gradually grew more complex (even incorporating other organisms, and turning them to our own use).  Every step of our evolution was built upon the life form we were before every mutation.  Nothing about us ever simply came into being out of “nothing” (that is, ironically, the creationist view of what God is supposed to have done).  We did not go to sleep one night as a bacteria and awake the next morning a fish, or dream our fishy dreams to awake as a primitive ape.  Evolution posits no such thing.  However, the inescapable evidence of our DNA shows the “indelible stamp of our origin” (Darwin’s famous words) — it is a record of the many different animals we were.  There is no other plausible explanation for this than that which evolution supplies.

This drives creationists crazy: it simply cannot be — it sounds too improbable and impossible.  There has to be a plan.

Why?  Who says so?  Who can say to reality “You cannot be thus” or “You must be this”?  No one has that kind of power.  Not you, not me, not the scientist (for this is the implication — that scientists are simply making this stuff up to disprove the God they hate so much).  The scientist reports what is true, what is actual, what is declared by the evidence.  And the evidence tells us that we evolved from bacteria — every one of us representing that unbroken chain of life back to the very beginning.

As Jerry Coyne puts it in “Why Evolution is True” (reviewed this week): “The process is remarkably simple.  It requires only that individuals of a species vary genetically in their ability to survive and reproduce in their environment.  Given this, natural selection — and evolution — are inevitable.”

We humans are a rather, um, late arrival on the scene of life.

Inevitable, yes.  Designed?  No.

But how could an entire human body evolve from a single cell?  As has been pointed out by another: you did it yourself in nine months.

No wonder Darwin said “There is grandeur in this view of life”.  For there is.  But in order to find it, we have to first let go of the diminished, narrow, ignorant view of life as having been created by a divine intelligence.  Then, and only then, will we see, face to face, the true story of our creation.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Talk to the Animals” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

We’ve all heard it: one half of a cell phone conversation.

“Nothing.  Just waiting to pay for my groceries.  What are you doing?”

Someone in their pajamas, at the grocery store, having all appearances of nowhere to rush to, and nothing pressing to do, nevertheless carries in her hand the technology to talk to anybody about nothing anywhere she wants to.

Our communications technology, it seems, has far outstripped our capacity to come up with something worth saying.  It makes me wonder just what it is that we’ve done with our much-vaunted ability to talk.  Though the creationists among us may see ourselves as the ultimate “purpose” of life on earth, I’m fairly certain that the rest of the animal kingdom is not (The Jungle Book’s King Louie’s plea of “I wanna talk like you” notwithstanding) desirous of our position.

Birds chatter all the time. What do they find to talk about?

Birds talk all the time.  I often wonder what it is that they find to talk about.  After all, how complex can the internal life of a grackle or sparrow be?  Maybe, for them, chirping is the calming act of repetitive sound making — sort of a sing song meditation.

Whales, I think, would really have something to say.  They live for a very long time, and must have interesting interior dynamics of affection, memory and even wisdom.  But, alas, they do not possess verbal language.  They do have a capacity for communication, to be sure (and something to say, I expect) but it is limited to clicks and rumbling sounds.  They simply have not been endowed by evolution with the mechanical capacity for speech.  Why not?  Can’t they simply “evolve” a voice box and the brain parts to activate it?

This question seems almost reasonable when seen in the light of the way evolution is often discussed in the popular press.  The language we use to describe evolution almost invariably borrows words that indicate intentionality: a shark is described as a perfectly-designed killing machine, we are told that dinosaurs evolved feathers and turned into birds, humans in higher latitudes developed blue eyes and narrow nostrils (as if they all got together one day and just decided to “do it”).

And this, it turns out, is a rather big deal, and it points us to a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that is as maddening as it is widespread: individuals don’t evolve, populations do.

And populations evolve because of the way we reproduce: we make babies by combining the genetic material of two parent animals to form a new, single cell.  Once that cell starts dividing, there is a whole lot of copying and duplicating of genetic code going on.  And, like any such complicated endeavor, mistakes are made.  Most often, these mistakes do not cause harm.  But many times they do, and that future individual animal could be in serious trouble if the mistake is in a place in the DNA that causes a severe malformation (a missing limb, a heart condition, a lack of a pain response).

Most often such damaged fetuses are aborted spontaneously by the mother’s body before she even knows she’s pregnant (current estimates are at 50% among us humans).  But just every so often (it doesn’t have to be very often, when you take into account the long years over which evolution and natural selection have had time to “work”), a mutation occurs which provides some tiny, incremental benefit to the animal that has it.  In nature, it doesn’t take much — a touch more speed or agility, or a shred more smarts — to give you an advantage.  In fact, giant leaps of change are most often disastrous and, frankly, wasteful (there is a reason we have the body shapes we have and the huge brains to run them — but as it is we are living right at the hairy edge of disaster as women often have a very challenging time getting that huge human head safely past their narrow pelvises).

A lot of the idiocy around intelligent design has to do with a belief that one animal simply decides, one day, to turn into another animal.  And, since we don’t see that happening around us, evolution must be a fallacy.  Of course, evolution and natural selection aren’t based on decisions at all.  There is no “force” behind it that thinks about anything at all.  It is simply a process in which the success of any and all life forms is the product of the inherited characteristics of that particular life form in a particular environment.  If an environment is stable over time, then life forms will inevitably adapt to it (or fail to, and die off).  So that throughout the history of this planet, life forms that began as the most basic of units have had time and opportunity to keep on reproducing, over and over, mixing and mutating their DNA until, due to an ever-increasing accumulation of those one-in-a-million (or billion, or trillion, or???) beneficial inherited traits, you end up with entire animals built up of cooperative collections of bacteria and bone and muscle and blood.

At some unknowable and uncountable moments in our human reproductive history, the genetic frameworks for our capacity for verbal speech were set in place.  They did not evolve in order for us to speak, they just happened, bit by bit until, by chance, some sort of functional unit took shape that gave the first human that could grunt a slight advantage of the one who only squeaked and, voila, a line of grunting descendants was set to become dominant.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And this is the way that a bacteria becomes a mutlicellular creature, and then a fish and then a talking, thinking human being.

But it’s more complicated than just evolving the mechanical equipment of a voice box activated by air flowing from our lungs.  Surely the nature of our language shapes our thought.  We rightly wonder whether the internal, cognitive complexity of animals isn’t itself limited by a lack of verbal language (or, conversely, greatly enhanced by it).  After all, it is our language — our words with their shared meanings — that provides the sort of filing system of our experience of living.  Without language, I think much of our memory and ideas would remain undifferentiated, like our memories of very early childhood (or even of our birth).

(I mean, surely we were conscious during all of those early experiences, but they are ideas we had before we had words to form ideas with.  They are like digital files from our first computer in a program that no-one has anymore.  The data is surely locked in our minds, but we cannot access it).

Such is the power of language.

And this is also why we will never be able to talk to the animals.  As much as we are able to communicate with chimps and dolphins and dogs and cats, we can’t actually talk with them.  We do share a very real understanding, at times, with other creatures.  But it is not simply a problem of translation (in the way it might be when trying to talk to another human who does not speak our particular language).  For we don’t even know how whales, say, file the memories and ideas that they have.  To read a whales mind would pose the same problems as trying to recall the pre-language experience of our own birth: how can we translate thoughts that were not recorded in any language?

It’s like the aging floppy disks that I keep in now dusty boxes…well, sort of.  For though those disks carry data in an actual language readable by an actual (if out-of-date and-hard to-find) technology, they will soon be, for all practical purposes, impossible to read.  The difference is that our pre-language memories (and likewise, one assumes, the thoughts of the whale) were never recorded in a language at all.

As one scientist said to me: what we really assume in our inter-species communication fantasies is that the other animal will learn our language, and tell us what he or she is thinking.  But for that to happen, that animal would have to evolve the brain and body structures that we did.  And since evolution is not directed, there is no reason to expect them to do that over the next million years or so.  But even if they did, they would no longer remember life without language, and could not tell us some of the secrets to our own wild past that we seek.

So what we really hope for, I think, is for a dolphin to suddenly start talking to us.  But it should be obvious by now that this is a fantasy.  For that magical talking dolphin, too, would have no access to its pre-verbal memories (unless it were, truly, “magical”).  This is why the notion is such a potent subject for fantasy in film and fiction.  It’s appeal is only outweighed (or perhaps enhanced) by the sheer impossibility of it actually happening.

I think we should be appreciative of both the benefits and limitations of our unusual capacity for language.  I coo at dove, or moo at cows all the time, and talk to cats and dogs as if they have a clue.  It amuses me and doesn’t traumatize the animals.  And it serves as a kind of wry reminder that we humans are in this talking life alone, together.  Our capacity for verbal language is one of the highly unusual products of an incredible series of tiny historical mutations that had to rise or fall in our population in the living conditions of untold numbers of individual lives.

And make no mistake: our capacities evolved step by step, always built upon the body plan that came before.  There is nothing “irreducibly” complex about us.  We see analogues to our own eyes and hands and throats and minds in the animals around us.  They echo our sameness and shed light on our uniqueness.  It is a wonder that the whales would probably enjoy talking about.  If only they could.

Or maybe, like us, they’d quickly run out of things to say.  And then we’d be reduced to visiting them at Sea World where, instead of thrilling us by leaping out of water for their wet-suit clad trainer, they would instead entertain us by chattering endlessly on their own whale-sized cell phones:  “Oh nothing.  Just jumping for some fish.  What are you doing?”

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

When checking in to motels, I never tell them about the dinosaurs that might show up.