Posts Tagged ‘technology’

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: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Witnessing for Darwin” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

I wondered whether it would be prudent to keep my little brass “bob bless” pin on the lapel of my sport coat as I worked my way through security at the airport.  Would that quarter-inch of pin welded on the back be seen as a potentially deadly weapon?  Apparently, I need not have been concerned (though two screeners did get a chuckle after close inspection of my solid-bronze Dimetrodon skull belt buckle).

As the jet powered up and began rolling down the runway, I was like a kid again, thinking “Whee!  I’m on a jet!”.  The pilot in me noted how long it took for the jet to rotate up into the air, and felt the dramatic clunk of the wheels coming up.  I watched the ground drop further and further below me, until I could see the random “pattern” of the distinctive clumps of mesquite bushes on the desert floor.  I wondered if someone else would look for a pattern of divine design in the obvious spacing between the plants.  What I assumed I was observing were the natural limits on proximity dictated by the features of those particular plants in that particular environment.  I made a mental note to read up on how desert plant spacing is determined.

When cloud cover obscured the ground, I returned to reading an essay on early human evolution.  And as I read about the evidence for when our hominid ancestors first began using tools (about 6 million years ago), I couldn’t help but see myself at the leading end of that ancient process that, at a certain point, really began to speed up (in this case, up to about 600 miles per hour!).

My "bob bless" pin.

It’s difficult to imagine that we were once not much better at using tools than modern chimpanzees are today (they use rocks to crack nuts, stripped twigs and spit to draw termites out of logs).  But that’s how we were.  For us humans, however, the use of tools turned out to be the beginning of a major shift in our evolutionary direction.  For at this point in our history, we began our dependence on technology that continues to this day.  The morphological implications were huge — for our reliance on tools seems to have had a great deal to do with our bipedalism.  And one thing led to another until we no longer needed the natural defense systems of apes (for instance, we lost our protruding canines as we relied more and more on defensive weapons of our own design, and as the need for massive chewing muscles went out with our increased consumption of meat and the added calories available from cooked food, our brain cases could increase in size).

Over millions of years we continued to evolve as tool-using primates until there came a point (some 300,000 years ago) when we hominids were all cooking our food over fires and hafting flaked stone points to wooden spears.  This is the point in history where our brains stopped increasing in size (having likely reached the limit of size that would still allow human mothers to deliver their big-brained babies)  and we were likely talking to each other in some form of language.  After this point, our technological and social progress took a series of dramatic turns that led to our more recent “Neolithic revolution” and then the modern industrial/technical age we now find ourselves in.

I stood in the aisle of the jet as we flew on into the night, heading further east, and pondered the physics that allowed me to be standing with relative ease on an assemblage of human-designed and manufactured parts, all of which (along with dozens of my fellow humans) were rocketing along some 30,000 feet above the earth.  I looked at my fellow hominids, and noted how all were focused on some task or conversation or asleep.  And I couldn’t help but think how we take all of our progress for granted, as if we have always been so insulated from the challenges of life in a natural world.

Back in Dallas, the greeter at the cafe I ate in had asked me about my “bob bless” lapel pin.  I told him about the church of bob, and he said he wasn’t very religious himself, but his girlfriend had a job at a Christian camp, and that if she were to reveal to them that she accepted anything Darwinian, she’d lose her job.  “And she really likes her job” he said.  “But how can they ignore it [the science]?”, he asked.  I gave him some encouraging words about science, and the name of the church of bob’s website, and felt like any other evangelist on the road.

Despite the similar sensations of that exchange, however, science is not — as I’ve said before — religion.  I may be an atheist, but science is not atheistic.  The religious say science is atheistic only because science will not support their system of non-evidential beliefs.  Science is attacked not because science attacks God (it is, in fact, neutral), but because it does not actively support Him.  There is a huge difference.

Creationists use examples such as a jet liner to show how such a machine infers a designer.  This is correct, of course.  But to take that idea of “design inference” and apply it to nature is another thing altogether, and it simply does not work.  All attempts to prove this sort of “intelligent design” are pure pseudo-science, and absolutely no different than astrology, reading tea leaves or alchemy.  Creationism is always an argument from ignorance, in that it takes refuge in the notion that because a phenomenon is not yet scientifically explained, it must, therefore, be divine in origin.  The key word in that sentence is “not yet scientifically explained”.

There may well be things that we will never be able to explain through science.  However, it is wise to note the many times in our recent history when it was proclaimed that we were at the end of what the sciences could reveal.  Each time, science has found a way.  (And, I would note, each time that science finds a way, at least one existing religious explanation has fallen into obscurity — hence the antipathy of religion to science as general debunker of false claims).

It’s as hard, perhaps, to accept that I’m flying at 600 miles per hour, 30,000 feet over the ground as that I am evolved up from a fish-like ancestor that couldn’t even dream of having hands that would grasp a stone-tipped spear (much less write on a laptop computer in an airport terminal, as I am right now).  But, then, how could our ancestors have imagined any of this?  I can accept that I am really in a jet because I’m actually flying on one.  In the same way I have to accept that I am an evolved species because I really do exist, and the evidence for my origins is now known to me.

The challenge for us living humans, then — at least when it comes to accepting our natural origins — is not imagining the here and now so much as trying to imagine ourselves back then.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “You are not a gadget” by Jaron Lanier

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

“By 2008, some of the leading lights of the open culture movement started to acknowledge the obvious. which is that not everyone has benefited from the movement.  A decade ago we all assumed, or at least hoped, that the net would bring so many benefits to so many people that those unfortunates who weren’t being paid for what they used to do would end up doing even better by finding new ways to get paid.  You still hear that argument being made, as if people lived forever and can afford to wait an eternity to have the new source of wealth revealed to them.”  — Jaron Lanier in “You are not a gadget”.

This quote sums up what this book by my former Las Cruces High School classmate Jaron Lanier has done for me: it has explained to me why it felt like the promises of the internet (at least to producers of creative content like myself) were hollow.  After reading this book I understand that the internet is sort of a global version of the “It will look good in your portfolio” argument that every young artist hears (from the clients that want “something for nothing”).

The truth is, there are times in any professional’s career where the mere opportunity to do real work (that can become those first entries on a resume’ or in a portfolio) are, indeed, worth more than cash-in-hand.  But they are worth doing for free because of the potential for those free jobs turning into paying jobs in the foreseeable future.  And when I was starting out in the business (some thirty years ago, now), that was, indeed, the case: I had to give some work away, especially when it was something that I hadn’t attempted before.  And into my portfolio and resume it went and, guess what?  I started to get paying jobs and full-time professional positions.  And pretty soon I didn’t need to give my work away (unless I wanted to).

Clearly, this is a transitional phase every professional goes through.  The problem with the nexus of the creative professional and the internet is that the internet has been demanding our content for free for 15 years now, and there seems to be no end of the rip-off in sight.  Why?  Because WE want everything for free as well, not matter the actual cost to our overall economy.

You may not be a writer or artist, but as a citizen living in this economy you should care about this, just like I should care about the shenanigans on Wall Street whether or not I have an investment portfolio.

Jaron Lanier has been called the “father” of virtual reality, and has been living in the heart of the digital revolution from its beginnings.  He is, therefore, well placed to be the humanist philosopher embedded among the throngs of digital engineers that have created the internet as we know it.

He is a thoughtful, poetic and humane writer, given to flights of imaginative fancy that may or may not appeal to the average reader.  He is a bit of an intellectual outcast in the digital community for expressing concerns about issues of human dignity and the worth of the individual that others among his peers are all too quick to dismiss as irrelevant.

Lanier pulls the pants down around the ankles of the technological monster that he both loves and criticizes not just for his own amusement or agenda, but for all of our sake.  His is a perspective that we all must understand because all of us are living, now and for the foreseeable future, in the digital world.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Our Busy Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

There are a lot of things that rattle around in my brain.  But for each thing that passes before my conscious attention (for its moment to speak up for itself) there are innumerable other ideas, facts and thoughts that could lay claim to my attention but won’t, either because I’ll never be aware of them or because they’ve simply been forgotten.  Each of our individual brains, I presume, is doing pretty much exactly the same thing — picking and choosing what we notice from the constant stream of thoughts and sensory inputs that we wade through every day.  One end result being that we just never know what’s waltzing around inside the skulls of those around us!

It’s not hard to imagine that earlier versions of ourselves were probably not as preoccupied with the amount of information that we moderns are.  After all, they didn’t even know there was another part of the globe, much less what was going on there politically, socially, environmentally or geologically.  We do.  Or, at least, we do as long as a particular bit of data about a particular place is holding our attention.

True, we’re not as taken up with sheer survival these days — running from hungry wolves and such — so it’s easy to think that we’ve got some mental capacity to spare for the rest of humanity.  But do we, really?

We’ve come to a funny place, where we seem to have fetishized the human brain as a wonder, a marvel and the pinnacle of an entire pantheon of creation.  And to be sure the human brain is — relatively speaking — pretty damn wondrous.  But then so are eyelashes, and the fact that we walk upright with nary a thought to the complex and astounding muscular and mental coordination necessary to propel us forward (while not propelling us face first into the sidewalk).  Life itself is pretty improbable, if you think about, so the fact that we have these huge, calorie-consuming brains is just the cherry on top of a very large cake.

I laugh to myself sometimes when I see a news reporter on T.V. speaking so matter of fact (and with obvious detailed knowledge) about a subject you just know he or she only learned about a few hours before.  There is always a tone in their voice as if this is something that any thoughtful person would (or should) know.  Knowing, of course, that tomorrow it will be something else that we ALL SHOULD KNOW.

Life is an endless series of such discoveries, whether or not we broadcast our process on the television news.  Not a day goes by when I don’t suddenly see something in a new way (mostly as a by-product of new knowledge from a book, a friend or one of those damn T.V. know-it-alls).  And invariably, the moment I understand something, I think the entire world should know the exact same thing.

I watched a PBS program called “The Human Spark”, in which host Alan Alda attempted to answer the question of just what that “spark” was that made humans so, well, human.  In one experiment, it was shown that a major behavioral difference between human and chimpanzee toddlers, was that the young humans felt a drive to instruct their less experienced kind in a task that they themselves had (only moments before) been shown how to do.  The chimps, it seems, could care less.  Humans, on the other hand, could not care more.

A research psychologist friend of mine studies babies and their response to novel situations.  Her babies exhibit a range of reactions from excited and engaged to uninterested, so it’s clear that not even all of us humans are equally curious about the world.  Some of us just aren’t really all that interested, while others of us wear ourselves out trying to keep a million thoughts going like plates spinning on sticks (to borrow from that famous Ed Sullivan show routine).

Keeping the plates spinning. A metaphor I've employed for years.

I think about these sorts of things whenever I walk through a library.  All of those books, sitting right there, packed with all sorts of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom and poetry and prose.  And I will never read them all.  Even if I did, mine is only one small-city library.  There are millions of others, many much larger.  And now there is the internet, where we humans have been able to store an unprecedented amount of knowledge.  It can make you cry…or want to crawl into a dark hole somewhere and think about absolutely nothing for a while.

I think it’s fair to say that we current humans live in an information environment that is as much a force for natural selection as any natural environment that we have encountered in our history as a species.  Admittedly, it is not sulfurous or voracious in a way that makes it hard for us to breathe or that compels us to scramble up a tree to avoid snapping jaws (except in a metaphorical sense).  But it is an environment that suddenly sets apart those that function well under its mental challenges and those that don’t.  Our survival success, then, is now perhaps measured more in economic terms.  (Meaning that our social challenges today are what to do with a mass of humanity in which a smaller and smaller minority is racing ahead right along with technology, leaving the majority behind).

In so many ways we behave as if we have outlived evolution.  After all, isn’t it clear that we’ve won that race?  We’ve given ourselves the blue ribbon, and hand out honorable mentions to the other mammals that we find the most likable: chimps, whales, dolphins, kittens.  Because our lives have changed (materially) so much from the wild animal tableaus of nature television shows (a tableau that was once our own not all that long ago), we no longer think of ourselves as even part of the natural world.  Because we have harnessed energy and electricity and  technology in ways that most of us cannot even understand (much less explain to each other) we feel that we have somehow transcended our animal past.

Of course, the religious have long felt this separation, and have, in fact, insisted upon it as a precondition for belief.  That tells me that it is a deeply human quirk, and that maybe some of us have been itching for any and all excuses to see ourselves as special all along.

The irony to me is that we are, indeed, special enough already, by sheer dint of our survival as living things — as a species.  To try to add to that is worse than “gilding the lilly”.  It is — in some ways — obscene.

The religious believer attacks science for its reductionism — reducing us to the level of animals, denying our divinity and special status.  What a load of donkey poop.  Science, in fact, tells us just how spectacularly amazing we are, but in a real way — in a way that invokes in me both a deep appreciation for my life and a deep humility born of recognizing just how small I am in the universe as well as in the billions-of-years timeline of life on this planet.  (This, I would argue, is the antithesis of the preening egoism that says that I am of deep concern to the one true God of the entire universe).

I’ve said it before: each of us alive today is a living representative of the very first life that ever took hold on this planet.  We carry in us an unbroken chain of DNA all the way back to the first slime that pulsed in sulfurous waters beneath a red sun.  That is one hell of a family tree.  Seeing the true wonder of that, any bronze-age myth about a Garden of Eden and a stolen rib becomes laughable and, frankly, sad.  (And of course, since my brain sees it that way, ALL human brains should see it that way!)

Our brains developed as they did in order, it would appear, to favor a rather amazing capacity to read the intentions of others.  As a profoundly social species, such skills matter a great deal to us.  Somewhere along the way we mutated in a way that complimented the construction of our voice boxes, and verbal language was born.  After that, it was only a matter of time before we changed the world with our technology and accumulated (and shared) wisdom.  Now we find ourselves overwhelmed on a regular basis by the noisy world we ourselves have created, locked in our brains that are now able to create technology that threatens to become too fast and complex for the brains that created it to keep up with.

I wonder sometimes where this will lead.  How far can we go with all of this?  So far progress has consistently outpaced any prediction. People raised on horseback learned to drive cars and fly airplanes, after all.  Are we going to be any different when the next technological leap overtakes us?  There’s something to think about.  Well, for a moment, anyway.

t.n.s.r. bob