Monday, August 15, 2011

Celebrating the Diversity of the Freethinking Species

By Gary Berg-Cross

Recently I was involved in a discussion of the relations of Atheism to Freethinking, Secular Humanism and allied concepts. One person proposed a common sense model with atheism at the center. The basic idea reflects the hypothesis that most people grow up in a religious culture, but for various reasons some move away from a family/childhood religious identify. The idea is that the natural tendency is to simply settle on some variant that calls itself atheism or agnosticism. There are other allied, freethinking positions such as skeptics, humanists, secularist or even secular humanists. Some people are exposed to these ideas and values in their family and/or education. But these represent a minority of the various groups that make up the allied complex of atheists and Freethinkers. In this view a complex movement like Secular Humanism is, by and large, not well understood even by freethinking people who move to and stay with the Atheism label and concept.

Trying to understand the diverse relations of freethinkers I started to think of a slightly different model for the various groups. While imperfect, and perhaps embarrassingly so, I found it amusing to play around with an Evolutionary Biology metaphor of species classification. In this rough analogy ideas (meme?) are organisms with bio-features. One could think of Atheism or Agnosticism as at the root node (call either of these the A-cell species). We can think of this as species made up of a single cell representing the idea feature – there is no god. The analogy is a certainly a bit jury rigged and can break down, but at least provides a way of talking about some phenomena and issues such as diversity. So as with Bio-species, religious cell populations (R-cells) can mutate into any one of these A-cells types and so the Atheist population can grow in this way too. This type of mutation is what happens in the world of ideas. There is also merging of ideas (cells) to form a new organism and some of these can reproduce as a new species.

Given the idea of Atheism as species we might think of this as a population of cells each having a meme for that Atheist idea. Some A-cells might mutate back into an R-cell. Bit this A-cell population can reproduce and can produce various non-branching types of Atheists populations. Some are militant others not. Some have allied ideas but still reproduce as an A-cell.

Biological populations and the implied dynamic of Freethinking thought then becomes somewhat analogous to what happens with the evolution of different species - there is a branching evolution of species. Isolation from the main population can also produce speciation. So if one population of atheists finds itself with tolerant religious populations it may emphasize a less assertive form of atheism than one that is an intruding religious population that is messing with the environment. Over time this becomes its own species distinct from the original A-cell population. The model represents various species as population descendents of the cell branch off of the A-node. As in Biology the later forms tend to be more complex – muti-cellulars made by aggregating additional ideas. These arise mostly from a series of step-wise, co-linear mutations, but not all new species survive and continue to reproduce. They may be only temporary, but lead to fitter forms.

Over time the Atheist tree looks different as some descendents thrive. Diverse richness is built slowly as some species fall away as intermediate forms. Those that survive are specialized reflecting selection based on environments that support additional ideas. These ideas provide some fitness advantage in some environment. So Atheism can exist in most environments, but a slightly more complex “organisms” like Secularism or Humanism formed over time can exist in dynamic balance with Atheism in a goodly portion of the environment. These will do better in environment that are less religious and provide some humanist or secular nourishment.

Reproduction is obviously a key factor and includes the idea of a merged mating as well as direct copying. Mating blends ideas but preserves the overall species design. There may be natural barriers to prevent individuals of one species from mating with another. For example there are various forms of isolation to overcome. Two individuals from different species may not have compatible behavior to allow merging. One thinks of examples of inharmonious freethinking positions clashing. Or the barrier may be that they don’t frequent the same territory (talk about the same ideas?). In the real world this is the case with tigers and lions. They don’t usually find them selves in similar environments. But they can in zoos. Lion fathers mating with tiger moms produce the exotic Liger.

Which brings me to that exotic specialized organism that is the product of Secularism and Humanism. I speak of Secular Humanism in the way that Paul Kurtz defines it using 5 ideas beyond the non-theistic idea that is the basis of simple Atheism:

  1. Emphasis on methods rather than conclusions,
  2. Naturalism & science,
  3. Ethics,
  4. Democracy, and a
  5. Planetary scope.

One might add others and make finer distinctions, such as the idea if rationalism, the value of peace or detailing the caring for planet earth, but these features alone requires represent an evolved population and require a certain environment, such as valuing Science, to survive. Is this exotic creature, a philosophic counter to Religious species, on its way to being endangered or even possibly extinction? I think and hope not, but a challenge is always reproduction in the face of changing environments. Neither Secularism nor Humanism need spawn a Secular Humanist. And the reproductive rate for Secular Humanists seems not to be high as individual may not find each other to produce Secular Humanist children. Children may devolve back to one of the simpler forms. As a complex organism Secular Humanist have some advantages and we might expect much from this population. But it face various challenges including how do members of the population signal to each other in a teaming environment filled with other species of Freethinker? Members face reproductive issues – what is produced in mating with just a Secular person? Is it the species of Secular Humanism? Will a Liger-type species be produced or is Secularism a dominant form that results? Will the population help produce an environment more favorable to population survival?

These are just a few of the issues that the metaphor promotes, but does not necessarily answer. As in the Biological world one can argue that species diversity represents a value in itself and is an implicit foundation for human existence. If the metaphor applies then the full range of freethinking species also represents a foundation on which ideas at the apex of the classification, like Secular Humanism is built. All are needed as part of a supporting rich mix.

I like the image of an ideational world with this diversity of freethinking species arising via something analogous to macroevolution. We can imagine the Freethinking Genus as network growing out of roots with founder populations represented by idea of Heracleitus & Protagoras. These evolve and radiate to later populations represented by ideas from Hobbes to the local American sub-species of Robert Ingersoll and on to Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Corliss Lamont and the more recent Paul Kurtz, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Perhaps we can have it all, but perhaps we need to think about endangered species and the role they play in the Freethinking web. I like the implied progress by advanced forms of freethinking such seen in this progress and as formulated more fully in Secular Humanism.

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