Posts Tagged ‘the not so revered 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


Sunday, October 9th, 2011

"Rio Grande Takeout" Street painting by Bob Diven


Sunday, July 17th, 2011

"Rediculated Python". Street painting by Bob Diven.

SERMON: “And You Thought You Felt Small and Insignificant Before…Part Two” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

PART 2.  “Enough about us…what about me?”

In last week’s PART 1 I concluded with this: “If there is meaning in the universe, it is not to be found anywhere outside of us — you and I are the only game in town where that commodity is concerned.  We (and our animal cousins, to varying degrees) are the only ones that care about anything at all (in any meaningful conception of that idea).  And it takes a certain amount of courage to value ones own individual capacity for caring once it is detached from the borrowed validation of an heavenly authority.  In short, humans find it much easier to trust their feelings and thoughts when they think they are coming from God.  No matter that they are always and completely products of our own physical consciousness no matter how successfully externalized we may make them out to be.”

I have found in this view some new understandings of my own person.  I think about my journeys through therapy, religion, psychic advisers and all the rest to achieve some sense of stability in my emotions and thoughts, driven toward a goal that we all believe can be achieved: normalcy.  But when it comes to humans, as in nature, normal is at best a mathematical approximation of the midpoint between two extremes (either of which, since they exist, could claim at least to be perfectly natural if not normal).

Often, however, we strive toward a goal based more on a notion of Platonic essentialism than reality (essentialism suggesting that there is a past or future ideal against which we can practically compare ourselves or strive towards (or, in the case of Christians, the sinless human we were created to be).  But, as Dawkins put it, using a bunny as an example: “There is no essential rabitt-ness!”, meaning that there is no perfect example of any species (and certainly no human) that we can compare ourselves to as an absolute standard.  There is only, well, us as we are right now.

You and I share pretty much all of the same DNA.  Yet you and I will have just a few letters in different places in our lines and lines of code which makes us just that tiny bit genetically different from each other.  But then so does everyone else, and not in the same places, so to quote Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: “We are all 99.9 percent the same, but equally, in the words of biochemist David Cox, “you could say all humans share nothing, and that would be correct, too.””

Despite my best efforts at self-knowledge, who knows what is really affecting my mood today.  I could be responding to a change in air pressure, a chemical shift…etc.,..etc.  My body turns itself over every day, so that on a cellular level I am completely renewed every so many years.  I am not the man I once was, and certainly not the boy I started out as.  And on a morphological level — were my fossils to be found some million years hence — the man I am today could very truly be called transitional between those animals we once were and those we will eventually become (assuming we survive extinction for that long).

In my personality I confront the tension and occasional frustration of trying to maintain both my idea of “who” I am, and the physical “I am” wherein that idea exists.  But from where do I get the idea that the consciousness I carry should be any more stable or “essential” than the body of processes that support it?  Instead of constant complaining about the greased pig of self identity, maybe I should be amazed that I am as constant as I am.  But then, couldn’t the same case be made regarding teeming life in general — or the rumbling earth we stand on, spinning through a vast universe?

And yet, for all this tectonic movement and biological activity, life feels remarkably calm (no matter how unreal that feeling might seem compared to the actual science of both the planet I live on and the body in which I live).  The fact that such knowledge as I am discussing does not make my head literally explode is due, probably, in no small part to the necessity of maintaining a certain coherence of mind in order to assure the survival of the constellation of organisms that I represent.  In short — and in a quite literal way — my DNA won’t let me go there!

One could argue that our individual experience of living — pleasure, the satisfactions of learning, the euphoria of love, the heart-breaking response to beauty, the intoxication of sex — are the wages we are paid so that we will find living more to our liking than oblivion, and thereby allow our DNA to continue its single-minded drive toward replication.  On a cellular level, we die a thousand deaths even while we’re living, and are constantly renewed, until the day that the organism is damaged beyond repair, at which time we are destined to be broken up into our constituent parts and recycled as we have been for billions of years.

What can be gained in raging against such a fate?  From who (or what) could we seek concessions?

It is so easy to look at a mouse or a fly and wonder “what’s the point of such a life, where all they do is eat, poop, reproduce and then die?”  What’s the point indeed.  If the experience of life were universally miserable, none would participate.  Even our pleasures are by-products.  And so, of course, is meaning!

No matter what we do the chances are that all evidence of our time here will eventually be wiped from the face of the planet.  Ice sheets will return and retreat, and other animals will thrive, repeating the cycle until our sun finally explodes and our universe collapses once more upon itself.  The more one looks at it the more bleak it becomes.  But so what?  It is what it is, and no wish of ours will change it.

Our lives can seem predestined by the ubiquitous regularity of the cycle of life and death.  We feel certain that we are serving some power greater than ourselves which, it turns out, we are.  It just happens to be DNA, not God, and DNA’s irrepressible impulse toward replication that began billions of years ago.

We are teeming life become aware.  And yet it could be argued, I suppose, that we are no more capable of understanding our existence than any of the other animals that share our lives on this planet.  It is unquestionable, however, that we know a whole lot more about life and ourselves than anything else on Earth.

The challenge that remains unique to us humans, then, is how to live with that knowledge.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Forbidden Love of the Pleistocene” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Although I was the one drawing attention to the recent (and rather dramatic) revelations about our (now proven) link to extinct Neanderthals, it took a mention of Neanderthals in a note from my Anthropologist friend Gaea to put me in touch with the actual implications of the news.  Suddenly I stopped and let my focus shift to my physical body, and my feelings, and considered the fact that I had Neanderthal DNA resident inside me.

I suppose it’s like finding out that you have a great grand-parent that fooled around a bit more than you suspected — took a walk on the “wild” side.  In some intangible way, it makes me feel differently about myself.  Of course my brain scans the obvious jokes about men behaving like Neanderthals (now we can all claim such inspiration, man and woman alike!).  But I also want to imagine the meeting between my modern human ancestors and my, well, Neanderthal relations.  I would like to think they were consensual, but who can say.  I’d rather not think about aggressive males, and focus instead on the historically powerful force of female sexual selection.

I read a fine book on the “last Neanderthal” that posited that we modern humans might have looked upon the Neanderthals as a separate species, and hardly paid them any mind (say the way deer and elk might interact).  But knowing human history, and our imaginative willingness to engage in sexual activity with just about anything that moves, it’s not surprising that we got it on with our huskier hominid neighbors.

The big debate until now has been whether such coupling produced any viable offspring, assuming that little evidence of such coupling survived because of either the genetic impossibility of (presumably) cross-species fertilization, or the sterility of whatever children were born.  Well, all of that is out the window now.  We (at least we non-Africans) need to put uncle Neanderthal’s photo up on the mantle with all the other family photos.

Even as I write this, I feel a shift in my self-perception.  I wonder why, since I’ve previously accepted that I’m descended from ape-like ancestors, and small shrew-like mammals before them and fish before that (and, of course, all the way back to the earliest bacteria).  But perhaps it’s because the Neanderthal connection is so much closer in time compared to any of that.  What are they saying, maybe 80,000 years ago as the time we and the Neanderthals mixed our genes?  Of course, the last Neanderthals died out midway between then and now (maybe as recently as 30,000 years ago).  So who can say how much fooling around there was.

And I can’t help thinking about my theatrical monologue “Forbidden Love of the Pleistocene” that I’ve done a few times over the last few years, where I portray a Cro Magnon man who is describing his forbidden love affair with a Neanderthal woman.  In the story (accompanied by a slide show of the beloved “Madga” — an actress I created Neanderthal prosthetics for!), he talks about their attraction to each other, the difficulties of communication and final insurmountable issue of their inability to have a baby.  In the end of the monologue, Magda and her small band of Neanderthals trudge off in search of a more hospitable land, never to be seen again.  In an elegant postscript, it now seems that they did not leave without a trace after all.  They weren’t just another dead-end branch on the human family tree.  A part of them lives on, and will continue to live on, in us.

Grrrr, indeed.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Like I’m Standin’ Still” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

I don’t feel like I’m moving at 880 miles per hour.  Or, to be more precise, I don’t feel like I’m standing on the surface of a spheroidal object that is rotating at that speed.  But neither do I have any kinesthetic sense that I’m doing just that while circling around the sun at 66,000 miles per hour (and there’s not a ruffle in my hair from being dragged around the universe at 483,000 miles per hour by that same sun!).  I mean, it is breezy today (it’s Spring in southern New Mexico, after all — the windy season), but even the windiest days bring gusts nowhere near 483,000 miles per hour (I’d notice THAT).  In short, all of that motion might as well not be happening at all as far as my daily experience of life is concerned.

That’s a silly notion, of course, as all of those un-felt motions have EVERYTHING to do with  the fact that I have an existence to ponder at all.  If any of those barely conceivable motions were not as they are, earth would be a very different place (or perhaps not a place at all).  If we were just a small percentage closer to the sun, the water that makes life possible would be boiled off the planet (and we’d all be human raisins) — a bit further away and we’d be really big popsicles.  (To go further, without the earth’s magnetism, our DNA would be shredded by cosmic rays, and without our atmosphere solar winds would sweep us from the planet).

This morning I took a moment to tug at the skin between my thumb and index finger to see if it felt like a collection of atoms held together by attraction, or a jumble of cells, of proteins, of amino acids.  But it looked and felt like skin, like a solid yet flexible thing.  I clapped my hands, trying to sense the space between the surfaces of my two opposing hands — seeing if I could feel the fact that they aren’t really in contact, but kept apart by the thinnest band of an electrical field.  I rubbed them together, and felt the quickly-building friction, and made a stab at perceiving the friction as excited atoms in near proximity and not really “skin” meeting “skin”.

It was an interesting exercise with no practical effect.  I have no difficulty believing the science about how the earth spins, hurtles and races around the cosmos, or the equally unexpected ways in which a vast collection of mindless atoms make up my own living human body and mind.  But looking for a tactile sense of either the outer or the inner universe is appears destined to be little more than an intellectual exercise.  (Just because we’re the first life forms on this planet to evolve the capacity to scientifically examine our own world and biology doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be able to emotionally grasp the mind-blowing truths we will discover).

Take another perspective: we all learned in school that we are mostly water (sea water, in fact — another hint of our beginnings), but did you know that we are also mostly bacteria?  In a very real sense we live in a world ruled by bacteria, in which we are a sort of Club Med resort for the gazillions of individual bugs that make us able to absorb oxygen or break down foods and utilize their nutrients (bacteria are what make what are really just chemical compounds and elements INTO nutrients in the first place).  As E. O. Wilson puts it, our bodies could most accurately be described as an ecosystem for bacteria!

Of course, the more we understand of biology and evolution, the more this wild picture makes sense.  The bacteria came first in the tree of life, and in the wild profusion and unyielding impulse toward life all manner of critters evolved as, well, by-products of all of that biochemical activity.  The fact that you and I have evolved brains and consciousness are a great boon to us, but of no more consequence to our driven-to-duplicate bacteria than a means to their continued existence.  To push it to a more colloquial extreme: we’re bacterias bitches.

Well thank you, bacteria, I say.  We’re all in this together.  I would like to think that my (personal) bacteria appreciate the care I take to be happy and healthy, though I don’t expect any thank-you notes.

The plain truth of evolution, geology, astronomy, biology and cosmology is this:  the odds against life of the kind that you and I enjoy are so greatly stacked against us that they can fairly be described as “impossible”.  But of course, we know that isn’t true, because we do exist (so reproducing life had to happen at least once!).  And the more we learn about biology, the more inevitable the varied and abundant life we see around us appears once those little bacteria got going!

And so here I sit, a teeming hothouse of microscopic bugs, a constellation of agitated atoms, being spun and whipped around an incomprehensible universe, sipping a cup of coffee and writing this sermon.  You’d think I’d be far more distracted by all that activity than I am.  But as far as my senses go, it’s a warm Spring day, and all is right with the world.

t.n.s.r. bob