Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Happy Darwin Day Video - February 12, 2011

The American Humanist Association celebrates Darwin Day along with local Washington D.C. area humanists and atheists.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Liberty Bell

I recently went to Philadelphia and had the opportunity to visit the Liberty Bell Center. This is a well designed center which tells a lot about the Liberty Bell, its history and its influence over the years. The famous imperative inscribed on it is, “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof (Leviticus 25:10). The name the “Liberty Bell” was given to the bell only in the 1830's by groups protesting slavery. Subsequently it was used as a symbol for the women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. It is likely that no artifact in history was more used as a symbol for liberty.

Just is front of the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center is the site of the President's House when the early United States Congress met in Philadelphia. That area was used for displays on the history of the house that includes documentation of the three slaves that George Washington had there. Perhaps liberty was proclaimed throughout the land. Our early countrymen actually fought to achieve liberty from arbitrary British rule. However, we as country did not actually deliver liberty to “all the inhabitants” of the land.

Was there enough evidence back in that time that slavery was irrational? There were plenty of people who had been slaves who were living outside of slavery. With the option to become educated and pursue more productive enterprises those people delivered substantially more productive effort to the whole of the American economy. My guess is that difference was sufficiently great as to be easily visible even with the substantially lower effort allocated to economic statistics at that time.

Should we always argue for or against ethical positions based on the a rational analysis of the consequences? After all, isn't the institution of slavery so disgusting that abolition of made sense even without any supporting evidence? The answer is no, because there were an equally large number of people who felt a similar sense of disgust with the notion of the abolition of slavery. They loved the “free” services and the quality of life that they derived from slavery. The irrational aspects of slavery are not visible until you have rational analysis of the system as a whole.

The rather profound statement on the Liberty Bell came from Leviticus. Could it be that this indicated that this chapter of the Bible had rational thinking that we could live by? Leviticus 25:3-4, “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” In addition you are not supposed to harvest anything that just happens to grow without any effort on the part of the farmers.

There is an obvious problem with this Biblical command, it does not give people anything to eat in the seventh year. Leviticus 25:20-21, “And if you say, 'What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop? I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, so that it will bring forth fruit for three years.” The Bible does not say what to do if God fails to deliver on this “blessing.”

In Israel there are farmers who in the seventh year put out tables on their farms and imported dirt on those tables to grow vegetable. Of course, they also have to hire foreign labor to do the work. Even with these extreme efforts to comply with Biblical commands, this is not good enough for the ultra Orthodox. The sale of vegetables from such farms is down substantially from the sixth year.

The famous quote inscribed on the Liberty Bell refers to what happens after seven of these seven year cycles on the fiftieth year, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.” So instead of any liberty to pursue a proper food supply these passages are mandating a two year sequence where farmers cannot get food from their land.

It is quite astonishing that we have a slogan on the Liberty Bell that has been a great inspiration to many and it comes from a preposterous set of Biblical commands that has enslaved people in ignorance and that ignorance continues into our modern times.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On the Set with Religious Arguments

Have you ever watched a movie where some people are stuck in a broom closet or a train compartment, and wondered "Gee, I wonder how they managed to fit the camera operator in there with all those people"?

The trick, of course, is that they don't: there's a set with four walls that make the closet, and they remove one of the walls to allow the camera to shoot the scene. Then they can replace that wall and remove a different one, to shoot the scene from another angle.

All of these pieces of film are then edited together so that as you're watching the movie as it cuts back and forth from one shot to the next, you're also seeing scenery and props jumping in and out of existence (with the occasional revealing mistake — glasses inexplicably filling up, cigarettes magically growing longer and shorter, and so forth).

A similar phenomenon goes on in arguments and claims about gods: they may stand up on their own, but put together, they end up being mutually-exclusive. For instance, someone might say that religious morality is better than secular morality because God decides what the rules are, what is right and wrong. Regardless of what you think of this argument, at least it's straightforward and internally consistent. That same person might then claim that God didn't like the idea of Jesus' sacrifice, but a blood sacrifice was necessary to atone for humanity's sins.

But wait a second! Doesn't God make the rules? If so, why didn't he set them up in such a way that humanity's sins could be forgiven without sacrificing his son? Between the two arguments, a stagehand in the theist's mind came in and removed the "God makes the rules" part of the mental scenery, in order to make the "a blood sacrifice was necessary" argument work.

It isn't hard to find similar examples: the Bible is God's word and should be treated as, well, as gospel; except when there are contradictions, in which case mere humans had a lot of editorial control. God can't reveal himself directly, because if we saw him in all his radiant glory, we'd have no choice but to love and obey him, and he doesn't want to violate our free will; except that Adam and Eve (to say nothing of Satan) saw him and had conversations with him, and still managed to disobey him.

If you were raised religious, or have spent any time around religious people, you've probably picked up dozens or hundreds of such tidbits, that can't all be true at the same time. This is perhaps best illustrated by the old observation that if Yahweh really did all the stuff in Genesis, and the gospels are true, and the doctrine of the trinity is true, then God sacrificed himself to himself in order to exploit a loophole in the rules he set up, that would allow him to forgive humans and not send them to the hell that he created, as punishment for being the imperfect beings he created.

Other arguments, like the problem of evil and the Euthyphro dilemma, highlight such inconsisties as well.

But if we're serious about trying to figure out how the world works, we need to look at it from different, sometimes unexpected angles. You wouldn't buy a house after having only seen photographs of it: how would you know the pictures weren't carefully staged to hide the mold in the basement, or the fact that the east wall is missing? You would insist on walking around freely, seeing the property from different angles, peeking underneath cabinets, behind utility panels, and inside crawl spaces.

Science thrives on this sort of investigation. You can start by learning about gravity, which says that all matter attracts each other, note that rocks and water are both matter, and infer the existence of tides. A few years ago, scientists figured out that humans began wearing clothes 170,000 years ago by studying the evolution of body lice.

Of course, science also discards a lot of hypotheses, even cherished ones, like the possibility of faster-than-light travel, or the predictability of Newtonian mechanics. But such is the cost of building a solid edifice of knowledge.

And in the end, a movie set might be gorgeous, and a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live in one.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Praise of Libraries and Librarians- ancient and modern

We are lucky in the DC area to have great museums and libraries. I was reminded of this yesterday when attending a talk by Fred Edwords on “Human Origins: When Religion Makes Science Museums Nervous”. Fred covered some the issues around the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian (more at The talk was in a local library. Museums and libraries are 2 of my favorite secular institutions. I just love libraries. From the time I could walk to one, I’ve had my library card and a rapid heart beat as I wander the maze-rows of books promising voyages into literary worlds. It’s one of those special secular and humanizing institutions.

My oceanic thoughts are well captured by Linda Sue Park in her poem “Why I Love Libraries”

I lose myself within the book-walled maze,
with no end to the promises in sight,
through passages to many worlds and ways.
The aisles meander pleasantly. A craze
of unread pages beckons, tempts, invites;
I lose myself. Within the book-walled maze

a googolplex of lexical arrays
for exploration flanks me left and right.
True passages to many; worlds and ways

that lead to corners sharp with turns of phrase,
and tales both commonplace and recondite
to lose myself within. The book-walled maze

reveals its pleasures slowly, but repays
the debt of time in thousandfold delight—
through passages to many worlds, in ways

mapped out by words. A sudden blink of light:
It's checkout time—they’re closing for the night.
I'd lost myself within the b
ook-walled maze,
through passages to many worlds and ways.

Here in the DC area we are especially lucky to have the Library of Congress (LoC) the nearest thing to a Googolplex of delights. This library always reminds me of that more distant and seemingly mythical public library that existed in Alexandria. If there is a prototype for a library this is it for me. The “Great Library” of Alexandria, founded about 300 BCE from a suggestion by Demetrius to set up a universal library to hold copies of all the books in the world (see and more details). It was research facility and had a governance use like the LoC since leaders like Ptolemy and his successors wanted to understand the people under their rule. Once underway the librarians expressed a goal was of collecting a half-million scrolls which the succeeding Ptolemies persued. At its height, the library apparently held nearly 750,000 scrolls. Ptolemy I, for example, composed a letter to all the sovereigns and governors he knew, imploring them "not to hesitate to send him" works by authors of every kind. Many of us have heard the story of how the Ptolemies copied books while boats were in dock. The extreme version is that “confiscated” any book not already in the library from passengers arriving in Alexandria. There is one story tells how Ptolemy III (~240 BCE) “borrowed” original manuscripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, using silver as collateral. He kept the originals and sent the copies back. But he did let the authorities keep the money. Oh to have at least the copies of some of those works were lost. We know that it housed Latin, Buddhist, Persian, Hebrew, and Egyptian works that were translated into Greek.

Recently some images of the library was brought to life for me by a film Agora ( One of the film’s attractions was that it has rich recreations of what the library might have looked and felt like as a combination library and research center. But as a film it is also about the life of philosopher and perhaps last Alexandrian librarian Hypatia. The film is set in set in Alexandria, Egypt around 391 CE and is has a story line which combines women’s rights, science and religion. The film is a bit of morality tale about science and progressive stances being challenges by passionate,
religious fundamentalist – in this case early Christians and Jews who were not only in conflict with each other but with pagan and secular scholars who inhabit the Library at Alexandria in the movie. According to Wikipdia there was a real Hypatia who was a Neoplatonist philosopher, trained in the mathematical tradition of the Academy of Athens represented and a follower the school of the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, who discouraged empirical enquiry and stressed logical and mathematical studies. The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in his Ecclesical History'

“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. “
Here end is described this way in a Smithsonian piece:

“One day on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 415 or 416, a mob of Christian zealots led by Peter the Lector accosted a woman’s carriage and dragged her from it and into a church, where they stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it. Who was this woman and what was her crime? Hypatia was one of the last great thinkers of ancient Alexandria and one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. Though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict.

Read more:

In the movie Hypatia is a bit more of a modern, empirical scientist and performs Galilean experiment to test concepts of a moving earth. Although Hypatia's death has been interpreted by some, as it is in the movie, as example of conflict between religion and scientific inquiry, contemporary historians of science have a different view. She essentially got caught up in a political struggle. In the words of David Lindberg, "her death had everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science".
A final note. Some of the wonder of this universal library is now captured by the Bibliotheca Alexandrin (
This library is both a commemoration of the Library of Alexandria whose final lost is depicted in Agora and an attempt to rekindle something of the brilliance that this earlier center of study and erudition represented.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Secular Soothing (and Inspiration)

It is said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Now we might add that they memorialize sacredly. It is understandable that Biblical quotes would find a place in memorial service such as in Tucson (“Together We Thrive: Tucson and America”). At the Tucson memorial service the closest thing to an actual minister or priest was Carlos Gonzales the Native American who gave a blessing and invocation. But was the Tucson rhetoric by President Obama and others a bit too slavishly devoted to religious language (what some call sanctimonious) or quasi-religious? It struck me that way at times although watching the early part of the memorial event, the audience behavior wasn't what you might find in a traditional church.

It was more like a religious revival or perhaps a warm up for a political rally with cheers and whistles. Obama himself felt something of this when he arrived at the lectern saying, "The decorum is a little un-nerving." And the Guardian newspaper seemed to pick up how the speeches connected the religious and political too. While praising Barack Obama for perhaps the finest speech of his presidency they noted:

“It is not just that, in performing the role of pastor to the victims of the shootings in Arizona, he shed his professorial reserve and became the empathetic head of state that everyone who crammed the National Mall on his inauguration expected him to be.”

Some saw the quoting of scripture as exactly the right tone for a largely Christian nation. It highlighted his Christian faith. And the pastoral tone was seen as statesmanlike and fatherly, which might help some people to rally around him and his policies. Perhaps for this larger reason some, such as the conservative blog Power Line attacked the atmosphere and ceremony. To them the Native American prayer along with Gonzales' comments on his Native American and Mexican ancestry were out of place. They wanted more Biblical language and concluded that the invocation "could have used more God, less Mexico, and less Carlos Gonzales."

But on the other side it wasn’t just me that saw a down side to approaching this event in a quasi-religious tone to handle intellectual, political and moral discomfort. One Guardian reader wrote:

“I so want this man to succeed, and the speech was beautiful, but please oh please will he take intense care of his own voice and not start talking like a preacher as a habit. Tony Blair couldn't resist that emotive "tug of the pulpit". It gives everyone bad memories.”

That’s why for me the part that made Obama’s a good speech was the personalized details blended with humanizing elements, such as captured in the phrase expand our moral imaginations.." Other humanizing elements included the macro-theme of civility, listening to each other and a more balanced political debate. It linked these to the future by invoking the name of the 9 year-old Christina Green who died in Saturday's rampage and Obama’s idea that, "I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it."

As I listened I thought of Martin Luther King Jr phrase about capturing the conscience of the State. My imagination wandered to the idea of what quotes and ideas a secular, humanist president in a society that explicitly recognized the humanist values might serve a role here. How do secular humanists comfort in a time of death and grief to pull families and communities together and inspire them to move forward? To start I thought of Paul Kurtz’s 3 key humanist virtues: courage, cognition, and caring (What is Secular Humanism, 2007) which he contrasted with dependence, ignorance, or insensitivity to the needs of others. A good start and here are a few of the related ideas that came to mind as part of what one might talk about building on these.

Accomplishment and Promise

We lost talented, engaged and promising people so one might emphasize a commitment to improve human welfare in this world. The productive work that we accomplished during our lives (and the hope it inspires) helps those who remain or come after. This is comforting as we live and we should be remembered for the good we do, for as long as we do it. We should think of communities as our extended family, who are our beneficiaries. Indeed we should think of the Earth itself as our extended home and an exquisitely beautiful place whose protection is also our accomplishment and which will comfort those who come after us. This event is an opportunity to make this linkage.

Personal and Democratic Growth & Practical Action

We should be comforted by personal fulfillment, growth, and creativity. This and its promise was one of the compelling aspects of Christina Green and is seen is the still living, heroic intern Daniel Hernandez of Representative Giffords. The key to unlocking both personal and group progress and growth is within life experience. It is to face facts, to fashion realizable ends or purposes, to choose the best course of action, and to act. This is a message to convey in this teachable moment. Rather than being a Pastor-in-Chief, one might try to be a voice of Democracy and social participation. Democracy, as John Dewey noted in The Quest for Certainty, is a “way of life” that must be constantly nurtured and defended. It needs to be understood as a mode of existence, an ethical ideal that demand our active and constant attention. We should take comfort from people who maintain and support this non-dogmatic way of life. We should take comfort in life as a work in progress.

Centering on Life in this World

We should express concern for this life, as opposed to an afterlife. As Omar Khayyam, penned it in the Rubáiyát :

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain -- This life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

We need to strengthen the commitment to making life meaningful here. The means to accomplish this are through Science, better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and conversation with those who differ with us. This means understand the world not as we would like to have it, but as science gradually helps use discover it in reality. This includes understanding our own mortality.

Ethics and Civics

I agree with Margaret Knight that “Ethical teaching is weakened if it is tied up with dogmas that will not bear examination.” Even comforting formulations that are tied up in such dogmas can be counter productive. We should stress an ethics based on critical intelligence and involved citizenry fortified by moral education. As John Dewey notes ethical knowledge is aimed at the improvement of actual conditions and moral values derive their source from reflected human experience. This is all connected to what some have called the search for viable individual, social, political and civics principles of ethical conduct. How much better we would be when we judge actions and goals based on a practical, grounded ability to enhance overall human well-being and individual responsibility. We need such ideas in these times.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Could modern Spiritualism be the death of Religion?

On December 29th, 2010, Sam Harris was interviewed on ABC’s Nightline, which aired a pretty fair segment on Sam, and gave an outline of his book The Moral Landscape. The interview was, as main stream media usually treats leading atheist authors and speakers, actually interesting, and didn’t seem to include much of the tongue in cheek skepticism usually displayed. It outlined the premise of his book accurately, and again, didn’t seem to try to denigrate it with the faint praise usually reserved for content reporters feel is - distasteful - but can’t directly accuse if of being on air.

All well and good, but what caught me immediately was the comment they made at the end of the interview in a single almost throwaway line, noting that Sam has a new book in the works on the subject of spiritualism - but with a twist. That twist is the suggestion that spiritualism can be practiced and studied without religious mumbo jumbo. I believe the words they used were similar to the phrase “mythology of religion”.

Remarkable! Both the use of “mythology” and “religion” in the same sentence, and the serious idea that one can actually practice something usually associated with religion, but ignoring the myths.

Wikipedia defines spiritualism as a religion, monotheistic, believing in spirit communication and an anthropomorphic deity, but not a biblical one. This seems a bit different from how I have heard Sam speak of it in the past.

In an essay entitled, “Selfless Consciousness without Faith” back in 2007, Sam said:

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world. I believe contemplative efforts of this sort have a lot to tell us about the nature of the mind.


That essay is a very good preview of how Sam thought about this subject three years ago. I recommend reading it in its entirety, as it undoubtedly outlines his thinking as he prepares to begin his next book.

It also provides a look at what could be the future of American religious life.

Lies, damn lies, and polls

For going on 60 years now, the Gallup organization has polled Americans, reporting pretty consistently that about 85 - 86 % of Americans are Christian through self-identification. Some others have reported in the last ten years that number may have dropped by as much as 10 - 11 % to around 75%. ("American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: )

But there have been various studies that suggest otherwise, that those numbers may have been inflated by a combination of polling techniques, skewed interpretations and the tendency of Americans to actually lie to pollsters. These studies, outlined on a web site called Religious Tolerance (, clearly show that the inflation could be as much as 100%, or literally twice the actual figures. Some polls have been taken that counted church attendance through actual physical counting of members present on a series of Sunday services, and showed that actual attendance was only about half of the numbers reported in public opinion surveys: 20% vs. 40% for Protestants, and 28% vs. 50% for Roman Catholics.

Others have suggested that the numbers of actual attending Christians are decreasing by as much as 2% per year in percentage of population. Combined by recent polls suggesting that atheists/agnostics in this country may be self-identifying in numbers approaching 15% of the population, it is becoming obvious that the actual numbers of practicing Christians is much lower than traditionally touted by religious leaders.

Other recent polls have suggested that the numbers of people that are “unaffiliated” comes pretty close to filling out that 86% figure. That designation includes not only unaffiliated christians, but people that are, in essence, deists, naturalists or - spiritualists. People that claim to believe in some kind of higher power, but shun religious organizations and decline to characterize their “gods” as anything approaching a biblical stereotype. Apparently, those numbers appear to be on the increase, along with non-theists.

The problem with non-theism

One of the reasons that the secular community has been so drastically under-represented politically is, in part, due to the above polls hyped consistently by the mainstream media over the last 60 years, leading our politicians to pander exclusively to those religious groups thus shown to be in the “majority”.

Of course, since non-theists tend to have only one belief in common - a lack of belief in a biblical god - it has been difficult to get these disparate folks to band together politically. There just isn’t enough they’ve got in common to get them to stay in one room long enough to agree on the size and shape of the table - much less any common ground!

Combine this lack with the very common criticism of atheism/agnosticism by theists that we have no moral compass or teaching, and what sane American would even think of having anything in common with us, much less agreeing to become part of the group?

Thus, an expansion of the numbers of the secularists is, at least publicly, problematic. One can claim that due to traditional hostility of Christians towards atheists/agnostics there is a larger secular community than is known or admitted to, but until those in the closet begin to make their presence known, that is only so much speculation.

So, what do we do about it? What is missing in the secular community that the religious have that fulfills the social needs of those that remain in that community, but in reality, don’t believe?

Is it only community?

The obvious answer is - a community that meets regularly and has a set of beliefs in common, providing support for families and individuals alike in times of need and crisis.

The secular “community” is missing, in most places, the meetings, which mean a lack of a support system, at the very least. Since, as mentioned above, there is only a lack of belief in religion in common, most people assume there is a lack of common belief and morality as well. This seems to be a reasonable position, since secularists often span the political spectrum, as well as the cultural one as well.

What can the secular community do? How do we become a larger community that can displace the religious organizations that loom so large on the American political scene?

I think that Sam Harris is onto something. Many Americans now claim to be more spiritual and less religious in the traditional sense. Less of a belief in traditional theism and more thinking that people have a spiritual side that is somehow lacking in modern technological life.

But Americans are also very committed to what is a decidedly materialistic way of life. Consumerism is rampant. Credit cards enable many to live beyond their means, driven by advertising that entices them to want, and buy, more and more material goods.

This sets up many for a serious case of cognitive dissonance, unable to reconcile the materialism with the religious teachings that they were raised with.


I cannot claim to have a single, unifying idea that combines all of this in some simple, sound-bite-easy new theology or philosophy. Perhaps somebody will do that, maybe Sam can.

But I suggest that his idea of a simple spiritualism that needs no religion can bring large numbers of people, both in the secular community and the unaffiliated community, together with a common goal of taking the disparate ideals of the American culture and making some sense of how it can all work together. Obviously, people from other cultures bring their own ideas, which will inevitably be brought into the mix somewhere.

People naturally gather together into groups, and people like to associate with others of similar thinking. All it takes is some spark, some idea coalescing into the public mind, percolating to the top like a good expresso.

The future of American religious life may not be secular in a strict sense of atheism or agnosticism, although I believe that it will contain a much more numerous such community than it seems to today.

What I think it won’t have is a strong Christian community.

Sam, bring on your book! We need more grist for our mills of discussion!

Friday, January 07, 2011

Skeptically Fact Checking Quotes & Misquotes

I belong to a men’s discussion group in my little development community located between Potomac and Rockville Maryland. We meet about every 2 months or so to discuss a book or topic that we’ve agreed on. These meetings grew out of a women’s community book club meeting that my wife and others started 10 years or so ago. They happily read novels once a month and in December invite spouses to a large Xmas party in which no book is discussed. Well they did have some at the beginning like “Killing Pablo” and “Freakanomics” which they figured the guys would like to discuss. But mostly it has been just a time for chatting. But a number of us enjoyed the exchange of opinion enough that the idea of our own discussion club was broached at several December meetings. Well when I retired in 2009 I had enough time to organize a discussion group. Knowing that some members were conservative, relative to me at least, I chose a pretty centric book Andrew Bacevich'sThe Limits of Power": The End of American Exceptionalism” for the first meeting at my house (with some refreshments supplied). Bacevich is a Vietnam and Gulf War veteran, West Point graduate and self-described conservative. He sees our political system as busted and argues that the country’s founding principle — freedom— has become confused with appetite, turning America’s traditional quest for liberty into an obsession with consumption, the never-ending search for more.
Not everyone had or read the book but I showed a 30 minute video segment from Bill Moyers’ show. We stopped to discuss the video as it played and had enough interest to organize later meetings which discussed Sustainability using Jared Diamond's Collapse, reasoning using Blink! and a Fall meeting on China's Future which used a series of articles.
The meetings are interesting enough and over time the divide between liberal-progressive and conservative postures has moved to the foreground. One noticed people disparaging a quote from Senator Bernie Sanders and others citing “data” from Fox News. Religion and religious belief are not direct topics, but some strong aspect of belief that one sees in such discussions seems to have surfaced or at least be close to the surface of people’s stance. The evasion, misdirected reason and phrasing at times reminds one of G W Bush style of explanation. I’ve read that on being asked if he was disappointed on the way things were going in Iraq, he responded with; "I wouldn't say I was disappointed, but that isn't to say I am appointed either".
Over time email discussions, before and between meetings, has been sprinkled with “quotes” by famous people that aren’t accurate quotes. Perhaps you’ve seen them. They usually start with someone saying “If you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to..” and the rest is a forward quote started somewhere on the internet. The latest one I saw was entitled “What has been proven we again need to learn” and the message said:
So what have we learned in 2,065 years?
"The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome becomes bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance." Cicero -55 B
It concluded with this “Apparently nothing, nothing at all.”
To me it is apparent that the relayer and original sender had not learned to be skeptical of quotes received via email. I looked the quote up, since Cicero is a bit of a personal favorite and it didn't look familiar. I found this explanation.
Quote from Cicero of Ancient Rome about Balancing the Budget, Reducing Public Debt, and Curtailing Foreign Assistance-Truth! or Fiction! It’s mostly Fiction…..
Summary of the eRumor:A forwarded email with a quote dating back to 55 B.C. from Cicero of Ancient Rome about balancing the budget, reducing public debt, and curtailing foreign assistance.
The Truth:This alleged quote from Marcus Tullius Cicero that began circulating on the Internet in October, 2008, is based on a true statement from the great Roman orator, but someone added a lot to it to make it match some of what the United States was facing economically.
The actual quote is: "The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall."
Another popular quote relayed to me from a discussion group member was a mixed list of forwarded email with several quotations from Thomas Jefferson relating to the economy, democracy and government. But several of them are not his or misquoted according to the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia and

As Thomas Jefferson/misquotes says "Misquoting Thomas Jefferson seems to be a popular right-wing pastime". An example of this is:
The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."-Unproven! This quote was not found in the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia
It’s also something of a truthiness phenomena. Ideological people believe that this should have been said. It’s consistent with their beliefs and this doesn’t need checking. There is also the phenomena of hiding one’s own small message within a quote. One example of a such a misquote is:

"To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."-
This is misquoted! The correct quote doesn’t’ mention taxes or subsidization "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical. "
Well the list goes on with misquotes from Teddy Roosevelt, John Locke etc. I check such quotes (on sites like ) since it is the analytical thing to do and there seems to be a concerted effort to misrepresent things and create urban legend - fictional story, told as truth, that reaches a wide audience by being passed from person to person. This seems to be a growing viral phenomena.
In a skeptical attitude I take guidance from Thomas Jefferson in “Notes on the State of Virginia”- "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error."
And now there’s a new book by Oxford University Press – “They Never Said That.” It’s a collection of famous misquotations exposed as adaptations of comments or fabrications. They range from Napoleon's "Not tonight, Josephine" to Sherlock Holmes's "Elementary, my dear Watson", which was an adaptation of a mere "elementary". And as they say for the record, no one ever said "Beam me up, Scotty." Fact checking the Bible remains however beyond such efforts.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Evolutionarily Positive in the Winter Season

Ted Dobzhansky argued famously that “Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” A key aspect of Biology that Dobzhansky was alluded to is the observed diversity of life and its distribution on the earth’s surface make. This makes no obvious sense when viewed as a species by species creation by a God. But in concert with what we know of the Earth’s history species diversity make good sense, especially when viewed as the result of natural evolution using data from comparative anatomy, embryology, biogeography and modern genetics. More recently some theorists in the field of Evolutionary Psychology (EP), with admittedly less data, have extended the evolutionary view to what has been called “human nature” through an evolutionary lens. This indeed was anticipated by Darwin who wrote in his 1859 On the Origin of the Species, “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.”

Evolutionary Psychology

It does seem reasonable to believe that our understanding of the human mind would be aided greatly by knowing the uses for which it was shaped by the evolutionary process of adaptation and natural selection (as G. C Williams argued in his 1966 Adaptation and Natural Selection) and this may provide a unifying approach for understanding humans. The new discipline for study human nature this way is called Evolutionary Psychology (EP). EP a synthesis of modern evolutionary theory, studies of behavior inspired by evolutionary theory, and cognitive psychology. The result is still a young science with many debates, but some interesting perspectives on emotions, learning strategies, depression etc. Critics wonder if it is valid science because many hypotheses are hard to test. Some have called EP theories “just so stories” as a derogatory way of describing favorite alternative hypotheses cooked up as after the fact explanations for just about any human trait. The problem is that some hypotheses either are hard to test or at lack definitive empirical support when proposed. But some see EPs value with only modest existing data in tying together previously unexplained or unrelated phenomena and suggesting future tests. A good example is the grand theory that what we call clinical depression is an adaptation (see Randolph M. Nesse, article on Depression in Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2000;57:14-20.) Earlier explanations for depression (aka low mood) function in that it communicates a need for help, or signals yielding in a hierarchy conflict. Neese suggested that a more comprehensive, evolutionary explanation is possible. This requires cognitive analysis of how the characteristics of depression increase an organism's ability to cope with the adaptive challenges characteristic of:

“unpropitious situations in which effort to pursue a major goal will likely result in danger, loss, bodily damage, or wasted effort.”

In these types of situations our ancestors face, pessimism and lack of motivation may have provided a fitness advantage!

Testable Hypotheses

This grand hypothesis is perhaps currently untestable, but the idea is plausible that in early human existence inhibiting “certain actions, especially futile or dangerous challenges to dominant figures, actions in the absence of a crucial resource or a viable plan, efforts that would damage the body, and actions that would disrupt a currently unsatisfactory major life enterprise when it might recover or the alternative is likely to be even worse. “ But EP provides plausible ideas for some phenomena such as pregnancy food sicknesses. The idea is that this is a byproduct of a protective role of prenatal hormones. Thus, the theory predicts different patterns of food aversions because this is an adaptation that developed to protect a human fetus from “pathogens and plant toxins in food at the point in embryogenesis when the fetus is most vulnerable. Is it testable? There is indeed considerable studied evidence in support of this theory, including:

• Morning sickness is very common among pregnant women, which argues in favor of it being a functional adaptation and against the idea that it is a pathology

• Fetal vulnerability to toxins peaks during the first trimester, which is also the time of peak susceptibility to morning sickness.

• There is a good correlation between toxin concentrations in foods, and the tastes and odors that cause revulsion.

One of the important, but controversial areas for EP as we’ve seen, is understanding human emotions – sadness, happiness, depression. Some time ago Secular Perspectives explored the topic of “Who is Happy and Why?” This generated some discussion but did not include an evolutionary perspective for happiness. Perhaps in mid-winter with its seasonal affectations, depressions and winter blues it is time to touch on happiness and its seeming inverse depression again. For a scientific-humanist and evolutionary point of view seems like a natural way to view some of this. Indeed comprehensive evolutionary explanation of moods, happiness and depression may emerge from attempts to identify how the characteristics of each increases our own (as it had for our ancestors) ability to cope with adaptive challenges. For now we have hints and ideas of this and factors that affect our moods which have an evolutionary aspect to it.

Walk in the Wild

One aspect of our evolutionary legacy appears to be particularly relevant - a consequence of the mismatch between the present way of living and the environment of our evolutionary adaptation in our original environment. A simple example would be our physical-environment. On sunny days we can enjoy that 30-minute walk in the open air which was natural for our ancestors. We know that depriving humans or other social species of species-specific social contact and emotional support is detrimental to health and happiness, so walking with others makes it doubly nice, This makes us happy in winter and makes sense in terms of earlier human environments. And it seems to have more impact on health than people believed earlier. It is in part the sun and companionship if out as a group, but research by Britain National trust has also shown that other aspects of the natural world our species evolved in can affect us. Listening to just five minutes of birdsong a day, for example, can have a positive impact on happiness during the long winter months.

Flowers and Scents Enhance Mood

While the science of EP has applied itself to some very basic hypothesis various common experiences also make sense as EP hypotheses, and are only beginning to be tested. Thus it is folk wisdom that flowers make people happy and in cultures around the world in historical records, flowers have emotional value among peoples. But a 2005 study published in Evolutionary Psychology ( supports that with data. In this study, people were given flowers and their reactions were tested using a measurable indicator of happiness called the Duchenne smile. Women who were given flowers responded with the Duchenne smile and reported elevated moods three days later (The field of EP uses expressions in the belief that most of them are hardwired-in from birth. This means they show up across all human cultures. See Both men and women demonstrated a smiley increase in positive social behavior after receiving a flower in an elevator. For elderly people their moods brightened, but their ability to remember increased. Noting that “there is little existing theory in any discipline that explains these findings” the authors propose that floral attraction emerged as a evolutionary strategy for wild flowers - “cultivated flowers are rewarding because they have evolved to rapidly induce positive emotion in humans, just as other plants have evolved to induce varying behavioral responses in a wide variety of species leading to the dispersal or propagation of the plants.”
Similar positive effects are reported by Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, in several studies of the effect of scent on mood and behavior. As he says, "There is no question that certain scents have the power to inspire moods."

These are not new to many of us, but understanding such things in an evolutionary frame brings it down to earth and critically interesting for secular humanists.