Saturday, March 29, 2008

Morality & Religion

This is just a quick note to alert anyone interested in the subject that there is a really good discussion today at Bloggingheads.TV between Joshua Knobe, Philosopher from The UNC, Chapel Hill and Paul Bloom, Psychologist from Yale. The subject is basically, "morality and religion and whether or not they are innate or learned". This is particularly interesting to me because of the book I'm reading, "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright (coincidentally the founder of Bloggingheads.TV).

I point this out because there is a lot of tasty food for thought in what they discuss for both theists and atheists. If you don't want to watch the entire discussion, I highly recommend the section entitled, "The big booming voice inside your head that says that god exists".

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Give me a little light, with all of that dark

What’s the best way to approach a rational view of life? Things certainly are pretty bad in many respects. The past 7 years haven’t improved my optimistic side. Do we simply become derisive of hopes or dreams? Does cynicism become the badge of rational, reasonable, logical people? In every fluffy, shady cloud, should we look for the hidden hurricane?

We know it’s there. You could say that such outlooks are indeed a mark of reason. We have learned from our lifetimes’ experience in a world full of religious fanatics, selling various versions of eternal Happy Days, that the better it sounds, the worse it often is. The more effort you invest in studying our evolved human nature, certainty increases that life is full of lies and deceit. It definitely is. Every person you have ever come into contact with has their individual agenda and it may or may not overlap with yours. Mostly, it doesn’t.

Few groups of people are likely to be as aware of this as atheists. Once you break down Homo sapiens’ Original Sin of bullshit (the creation of myths) then everything else is reasonably suspect. After all, everything is controlled by these superstitious cuckoos.

But I will maintain that the more confident you are in your rational worldview, the more you free yourself to allow some reasonable hope. I can be extremely negative, but if I abandoned all hope I would cash in my chips. Hope still needs to be closely monitored. You still have to look the situation over and apprise yourself of the downsides involved and always be ready for disappointment. Many times we will be frustrated, but the edge will be taken off it with the knowledge that we had it figured out and buffered ourselves – unlike those who had bought in with all of their cherished emotional savings.

We can live in a world of complete negativity, but that’s also a dangerous strategy for person of reason. You will never have the opportunity of enjoying a truly good thing, right in the moment of it happening. Worse, we have evolved to draw together in moments of positivism and to repel from the negative. In a simply logical sense, the negativity is probably going to get you closer to the facts of any given situation. But we are a social animal. If you chase off all the other beasts of your species, you have a difficult time passing on your genes.

And, after all, that’s what we’re here for. For those reading here who have no children and don’t intend to – you aren’t exempt. Evolution accounts for you too. Your job is to facilitate the continuation of your genes in others. Some of those genes will be extremely close to your own; others more distant, but still related. We really are all brothers and sisters and not in any religious sense.

Don’t put on blinders, but a nice pair of stylish shades can go a long way in helping you to do your genetic duty, with a little panache, before you punch your ticket out of here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Age of the Net - Got a question? Get an Answer.

This post is really about two different subjects.

In my last entry, I posted about this article from Livescience regarding the newest research finding on one of the oldest hominid fossils, O. tungenensis. The article focused on the work of one of our top researchers in the field of evolutionary morphology - Dr. William L. Jungers , head of the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. He was part of a team that analyzed Orrorin and determined that it was a biped (upright walker).

This is huge news, since Orrorin is thought to be over 6 million years old. The thought that came immediately to my mind was - how does this effect past estimates of the chimp/human split having occurred 5 or 6 million years ago? If Orrorin was already walking, and bipedality is thought to have occurred some considerable time after the split, then science should soon be revising the estimate backwards.

It's one thing for an amateur like me to toss out a question, and another thing to get solid information straight from the pros. So I emailed Dr. Jungers and he was kind enough to reply and allow me to share. Here's what he says:

If Sahelanthropus* in Chad is also a biped (hard to know for sure since it's just a cranium), then, yes, the human-chimp split is even earlier. The people who develop and use molecular clocks still need fossils to calibrate their clocks. So the split may well be closer to 8 than to just under 6 MYA.

More to the point, the answer to your question hinges on whether bipedalism evolved in the trees (e.g., as Brigitte Senut and Martin Pickford believe) or on the ground (from knuckle-walking ancestors).

*Sahelanthropus tchadensis (nicknamed "Toumai") is the only hominid fossil even older than Orrorin. It is estimated to be as much as 7 million years old.

The other point of this post is that you can get the information you are looking for so easily these days. Not all researchers are as accommodating as Dr. Jungers, but many of them are. This is not the first question that has come to mind where I contacted some knowledgeable scientist and received a scholarly answer. I've found it to be a particularly effective tool when I hit a bump in a book. Authors seem very willing to help you through your questions.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Any way you slice it - I'm OLD

This new scientific finding will, I predict, involve a rewriting of the most popular working hypothesis on hominid evolution. After reading this article which informs that the approximately 6 million year old Orrorin fossil indicates upright walking, take a look at this video to remind yourself the facts concerning the Laetoli footprints from about 3.5 million years ago.

Here’s where I think we have a problem in hypothesis. For most of the past 20 years it was thought that hominids and chimpanzees split, and went off on their own evolutionary trajectories, about 5 million years ago. Due to the discoveries of Orrion and Tchadensis (this decade) the date for that split has been pushed back significantly. I’ve heard 6 million years mentioned as a possible split time.

But – now that Orrorin (said to be about 6 million years old) has been tagged as an “upright walker”, where does that leave the hypothesis? As the video makes clear, bipedalism would likely have come at the cost of considerable time. Are we talking about 7 million years (or more) since the split? I think it’s possible we will be hearing this in coming years.

Human evolution timeline

Friday, March 14, 2008

Reading an average book is not the end of the world

It’s tough to read a book in which all of the protagonists are atheists and all of the antagonists are theists and still not particularly enjoy it. It’s tough, because I really want to rave about such a book. The book is Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre, written in 1998, and the current reading selection for The Nonbelieving Literati (or NL, as some of us call it).

The problems that I had with the book will probably be considered petty by most. And, clearly, they are not the usual standards by which one should judge a book’s merits.

The first has to do with location. Nearly the entire book took place in sunny Southern California and, most specifically, in Santa Monica (with some scenes covering West Hollywood and Downtown L.A.). I generally love detective novels and, even more, those that take place in Los Angeles. For those who don’t know, I’m a lifelong California guy and was born in Santa Monica Hospital (now UCLA Santa Monica Hospital).

The problem here was that the book is written by Brookmyre the Brit, and his knowledge of the area is severely limited. I was continually distracted by streets that don’t exist, streets that intersect with others at points they shouldn’t and inaccurate building and scenery descriptions. The main policeman (and police force) was LAPD, even though they have no jurisdiction in the city of Santa Monica which has its own police force. The only time you will ever see LAPD there is when they are appearing in Santa Monica Superior Court on a case.

The second goes back to Brookmyre the Brit. I have nothing against British authors. There this guy named Darwin who wrote one of my favorite books of all time. In fiction, I have a high regard for guys like Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. But when you have a book set in Southern California I am, again, distracted by continuous use of British slang. Only one of the characters was supposedly from the United Kingdom, yet all characters were speaking and thinking in a British “accent”.

Finally (and more pertinent to whether it is a good book or not) I found the plot to be way over-the-top. While it’s fun having all of the evil folks in the book being Christians, this is not my experience. Generally I find them decent, simple folks who are a bit dense when it comes to issues of the supernatural. While I find the net result of religion to often be “evil”, it’s seldom the individual proponents of it who are. And, for those who are, this still was an implausible storyline.

The reader is presented with a fundamentalist pastor of a mega-church based loosely on Pat Robertson who goes off the deep end and contrives his own mini-apocalypse by purchasing nuclear weapons to detonate off the coast of California in the hopes of inducing a tidal wave of biblical proportions that will wash away the evils of the Hollywood culture, while simultaneously convincing America that this was an act of the vengeful god of the Old Testament and which said pastor has prophesied. Apparently, doing so will renew and revitalize our country’s love and respect for this “likeable” mythological character. I suppose that Brookemyre can see that this would be a bit of a stretch, even for a billionaire pastor, so he gives him the help of a far right wing militia group which helps him purchase the nuclear weapons and has assassinated 5 scientists who could have led the FBI on a hot trail back to Pastor Evil.

In the end he is foiled due to the fact that Brookemyre failed to hook him up with sidekicks Fat Pastor and Reverend Mini-Me. Well, sure, I can suspend disbelief for that one.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

So simple, even a monkey can do it

Complex thought - Complex language; both an aspect of only one creature on the planet.


Recent research on putty-nosed monkeys (Cercopithecus nictitans) in Nigeria has given science reason to think otherwise. In this article the researchers found the monkeys had varying shouts of warning depending on the nature of the threat - causing other monkeys to react in a situation specific manner.

Why is it that findings like this seldom surprise me? Still, I delight in them and, in this case, it's a bit more remarkable in that the research wasn't even directed at our closest cousins in the primate family. This would indicate that the evolution of this characteristic probably took place long before our split with chimps on the evolutionary tree.

What's the significance of this? Well, what was the significance of our ancient ancestors developing these skills? They are the abilities of an evolving species that would indicate the possibility of future, even more complex, thought and speech. And, it shows yet another feature of Homo sapiens that isn't all that unique.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Lithium anyone?

I think most atheists are better able to deal with their knowledge of the universe than I am. I fully believe that an atheist can live a full and happy existence without invoking any hereafter. I accept this, not because I can, but due to knowing enough atheists over a long enough period of time to see how they live their lives.

It has been said that atheists don’t need gods to create an ultimate meaning because they can give meaning to their own lives. We are, each of us, responsible for discovering and applying meaning to our lives and living up to it, to the best of our abilities. I can do this for periods of time, but ultimately I’m filled with gloom. That there is absolutely no meaning to my short existence other than that which I assign to it is for me, in the end, highly unsatisfactory.

And yet, here I am. Another day in paradise – the only paradise any of us will ever have. I could no more make myself believe that I’ve overlooked something and that there really is “something greater” than I can convince myself of a secret world of fairies, elves, warlocks and witches. Every such explanation is so obviously false – as concocted as every religion that has ever been foisted upon our species.

So I go through my existence, trying to play that via rationality I can create meaning, doing pretty well at it for stretches of time and finally falling back into the abyss, only to pull myself back out of it and playing the game again as another year rolls by. And, no, I’m not flipping out because I have a birthday coming shortly; it’s still many months away. For me, this is quite the regular routine (for 30+ years) and I can expect to suffer through this depressing period again next month – or, if lucky, maybe 3 or 4 months down the line.

So I’m throwing it out to anyone – how do you carry on with this knowledge that we are ultimately (in the very near future) to be assigned to the dustbin of humanity? Do you suffer from the depression that hits me, or are you always as happy as you were right before you started reading this?

And here’s another thing to ponder. Do we really want everyone giving up the cherished beliefs that keep them going? I am able to contain my own suffering during my “dark times”, but can we expect all of “them” to be able to do the same, or will a significant percentage of them become monsters in their despair? Maybe some minds need to think there is a deity waiting to welcome or to punish them. Is irrational belief an evolved strategy of social living for cognizant animals? I’ve debated this many times and still unsure where I stand. But you can see which direction I’m leaning.

Another Day in Paradise