CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.
As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.
Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.
Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)
Posted in Animals, Books, Evolution, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged altruism, bonobo, chimpanzee, CNN, empathy, Evolution, Frans de Waal, morality, Morgan Freeman, The Bonobo and the Atheist, Through the Wormhole, Yerkes Primate Research Center
445 million years may seem like a long time. For the horseshoe crab, however, the eons have been spans of years with little change from a rather simple existence that involves lurking under the water and crawling out this time of year to breed. For many of us, Hurricane Sandy is already a somewhat distant memory of days (weeks for some) of no electricity, sitting in the dark, wondering when life would get back to normal. Some parts of the Jersey shore are still suffering from the after-effects, but many of us have had to “just get on with it,” and forget about the damage caused. For the horseshoe crab, however, it is not so easy. For creatures that have survived virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, Sandy dealt a cruel blow. The largest concentration of hermit crabs in the world breeds in Delaware Bay, just down where New Jersey and Delaware nearly come together. Numbers had been declining in recent years as horseshoe crabs were used for bait by fishers, landing them on the “near threatened” scale of the countdown to extinction. Hurricane Sandy eroded the beaches where the crabs breed, and human detritus, left years earlier to protect expensive homes, now provided unsurpassable barriers for most of the crabs. Biologists are at work trying to rebuild the habitat in time.
Not only the time-honored horseshoe crab, but the American subspecies of the Red Knot, a migrating shorebird, has come under threat. The Red Knot, which stops in New Jersey to snack on horseshoe crab eggs on its way to the northern breeding grounds, has been declining in numbers. No crabs, no birds. While the troubles of two species may not seem like cause for concern, the fact that one of those species has been successful since millions of years before the first dinosaur even appeared should give us pause. Dinosaurs showed up some 200 million years after the horseshoe crab had been solidly established on the beaches of the pre-Triassic world. Nature would not be set to wipe out the crabs after a single hurricane, but human obstacles may do what nature would not—endanger a perfectly adapted species so that “valuable” real estate can be protected.
It is tragic when people lose what they’ve worked to attain. It is, however, shortsighted to think that we are the only important species on the planet. We have evolved in a system that includes all the other organisms on our world—our family tree goes beyond that cousin that always embarrasses us to the very crabs that crawl in the silty, brackish water of the Delaware Bay. We’ve all had an impact on each other. Even if you’ve never seen a horseshoe crab, just by reading this post they have come into your life in some way. When we start constructing our grand dreams for a fine life, it seems that we should take into account those who have been here long, long before us. Their requirements are modest, but their place in the cladistic tree of life is just as important as ours. Extinction is forever.
From Wikipedia, by Asturnut
Posted in Animals, Current Events, Evolution, Natural Disasters, Posts, Weather
Tagged Delaware Bay, Evolution, extinction, horseshoe crabs, Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey, Red Knot
From where I was sitting, the robin appeared to be asleep. It was an overcast and chilly spring morning, so I had to admit that I was a little envious. Our back yard is divided from the neighboring landlord’s property by a kind of picket fence with square-topped stanchions every ten feet or so. The robin was sleeping on the stanchion closest to an old maple tree. A wiggle of movement caught my eye. Further down the fence, maybe seven or eight pickets back, sat an impatient gray squirrel. It was sitting up on its haunches, and flashing its bushy tail in an obvious attempt to draw attention to itself. The robin sat, implacable. The squirrel looked around like a nervous commuter who will be late for work. It hoped a picket or two closer. Up on its haunches, looked around, jiggled its tail. Still the robin sat. The squirrel turned toward the maple tree and reared back, preparing to jump. It was too far. The squirrel turned back to look at the bird. The robin, flapping its wings a time or two, hopped into the air and landed on a picket two further down beyond the stanchion. The squirrel climbed onto the now vacant spot and leapt into the tree. The robin flew back to its original post.
This little exchange brought home to me once again the intelligence of animals. I don’t know what was going through the minds of these two different species, but they obviously both wanted to be at the same place at the same time. Perhaps some moral imperative passed in unspoken form between them. The squirrel needed to be close enough to make the leap into the tree, and the robin was clearly comfortable where it was sitting. Something had to give. I don’t know if robins peck on squirrels when nobody’s looking, but the rodent, larger than the bird, was obviously cautious. In the end, a compromise was reached and each ended up where they wanted to be.
More than a show of intelligence, I also saw this as a parable. I imagined how differently it might have worked out if the robin were a Christian and the squirrel a Muslim. Would there be any giving way? Any acknowledgement of the need of the other? A few wing flaps, a little leap to the left, and the squirrel found its sanctuary. The robin simply returned to where it was. They both wanted the same sacred space. They didn’t raise voices or argue—the whole exchange was terribly polite. Behavioral biologists often suggest that we can learn much by watching animals. As I watched what must have been only a minor incident in the backyard world of robins and squirrels, I felt as if two of the great teachers of our many religions were enacting a parable for humankind. If only we would pay attention.
Who remembers Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots? Plastic “robots” in the boxing ring trying to knock each other’s block’s off was a form of entertainment for kids of the ‘60s before such things as humanoid robots actually existed. So when Boston University’s alumni magazine had an article about dancing robots, I had to see what was up. As regular readers will know, I’ve been exploring some of the problems with reductionism lately. This idea, that humans and animals are just fleshy machines, breaks down when we try to design robots that can do some of the most basic of human activities. Sometimes we dance and we don’t know why. Apart from Wall-e’s dance with Eve, robots have trouble getting the concept. Graduate student John Baillieul notes that this isn’t about “some high school guy who had trouble getting a date, so you get a robot. The ultimate goal is to understand human reaction to gestures and how machines may react to gestures.” Having actually been a high school guy who never even got to the prom, I’m wondering how depressed our robots get when the fem-bots all look the other way.
The reductionistic outlook suggests that we can eventually program robots to respond as humans would, responding fluidly to situations, allowing them to over-ride their “instinct,” which, the article implies, equals programming. We have no idea what instinct is. It is something all biological creatures have, from the heliotrope following the sun to the human dancing her heart out. Do we want machines to replicate our most intimate emotions? Even our most reliable chip-driven devices sometimes freeze up or rebel. My car has recently got the idea in its mechanistic brain that the right-hand side rearview mirror should be rotated as far to the right as possible. We bicker about this all the time when I get in to drive. Well, machines know best. They, after all, are the shape of the future.
So programming robots so that they can react in real time to non-verbal cues, like all sentient beings do, is a desideratum of our mechanistic Weltanschauung. Notes Rich Barlow, the article’s author, “bats, for example, camouflage their motions so that they can sneak up on insect prey, a fake-out familiar to anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky fly.” My question is who is the pesky fly in this robot-human scenario? Who acts irrationally and unpredictably? Isn’t our instinct to smash the fly a result of our annoyance at it landing, yet again, on our sandwich with its dirty feet? And what is that stupid dance that it does when it’s all over our food? Reductionism must, by definition, reduce instinct to the level of a kind of genetic programming. Even this aging blogger, however, knows what it is to dance without knowing why. He also knows what it feels like when your date goes home with somebody else, something to which he’s not convinced that we want robots calculating an “instinctual” response.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Current Events, Higher Education, Just for Fun, Posts, Robotics, Science
Tagged Boston University, instinct, reductionism, Rich Barlow, Robotics, Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, Walle
A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.
An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.
I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Evolution, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged common sense, death, Evolution, Gilligan's Island, Jeffry Kluger, reductionism, The Mystery of Animal Grief, Time
Anyone who has looked into the eyes of a cat or dog can have little doubt that they think. What exactly they think is, of course, a matter of conjecture. I had been meaning to read Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature for a few years now. We are taught at a young age to eschew anthropomorphism—although our eschewers don’t use that word—as the childish way of perceiving the world. Animals don’t think because that’s reserved for people. We sit in the finest spots in the poshest corners of the animal kingdom and the sign says “No Dogs Allowed.” I never really outgrew this child-like belief because the minimal scientific evidence I’ve been able to infer supports the idea that like us, other animals think. Narby, an anthropologist, agrees. At least to a point. I don’t wish to make claims for Dr. Narby that he wouldn’t support, but he provides fascinating empirical evidence, “down” to the level of amebas and plants, that indicates intentionality. Nature is alive with thought.
As an anthropologist, Narby begins his consideration with the insights of shamans. Although scientists rarely countenance shamans, they are among the earliest of human religious specialists and they have long promoted the idea that humans are fully integrated into nature. We are not separate and above. From our brains to our bones, we are one with the natural world. If we think, should not animals think? Interestingly, this idea brings Narby into some of the same territory as Thomas Nagel; intelligence may be a cumulative process. Our brains’ ability to think may be the result of collecting together the thought processes of our fellow creatures to a point where our thinking becomes abstract. We’re told that dolphins and whales don’t think like us—they don’t build cities, do they? Maybe it’s because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter than we are.
There are, it seems, many thinkers on the outside of the hallowed confines of hard science that are chipping away at the strict materialist edifice. There can be no serious question that the empirical method explains much of what we experience in the universe. It has always amazed me, however, that we assume that humans are able to find the outer limits of existence with our limited senses. We know animals can see, hear, smell, taste, and maybe even feel in ways beyond our capabilities. Who’s to say that there isn’t other input well beyond our limited senses that we use to survive in this environment? After all, we didn’t evolve to know everything—we evolved to be able to thrive in our ecosystems. For that you don’t need all the answers—just enough to get by. If you doubt my reasoning here, I suggest you ask your dog or cat.
Posted in Animals, Books, Consciousness, Evolution, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged anthropology, Evolution, Intelligence in Nature, Jeremy Narby, reductionism, science, shamanism, Thomas Nagel
We’re nearing the competition season for FIRST Robotics. The animated, mechanical creatures created from scratch since early January are now set to compete for a kind of ultimate, ultimate frisbee. Only you can’t call it “frisbee,” for copyright reasons. Ironically drone bombers have been in the headlines this past week. Drones are robotic planes that fly their missions with human pilots sitting safely hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the action. People are beginning to wonder—is this ethical? I pull out the Scientific American I purchased at Bush International in Houston last week. There’s an article about robo-bees. In a scare that seems like it could have come straight from the X-Files, I’ve been reading about the disappearance of bees. There are people seriously worried about this. It does seem that we failed to learn the lesson of Rachel Carson, and a land of milk and honey just doesn’t appeal without the honey.
The robo-bees are the size and roughly the shape of biological bees. They can be programmed to behave like bees and pollinate plants that our missing bees have been, well, missing. There may be hope for the flowers after all. But I wonder about the honey. No doubt, technology will come to the rescue. Those labs that gave us sucralose, aspartame, and stevia can surely invent a golden, viscous liquid sweetener that drips from a pipette. No cause for worry here. We can recreate the natural world in the laboratory. Honey has been reputed to have medicinal effects, but we can synthesize medicines in the lab as well. You might not want to dribble those on your biscuits, however.
Honey is made from nectar, the mythological food of the gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all recognize the religious significance of honey. Those of us who’ve been stung realize that a price has to be paid for such divine sweetness. The gods are like that. Roses have thorns for a reason. Not that I’m not impressed with the technology behind robo-bees. I am astounded that tiny robots can be built to fly and perform as we understand nature to dictate the Apis genus. They don’t, however, have the minds of bees. Mind is not the same as brain, as we’re beginning to learn. And minds are not limited to Homo sapiens. I recall when in our arrogance we thought we could improve the productivity of bees (capitalist bees) by breeding them with their Africanized cousins, biologically separated by an ocean. Many nightmares haunted me of the resulting killer bees. Yes, I had been stung as a child. Just by regular, garden-variety bees. From those painful events I learned a valuable lesson. We tinker with nature at our own cost. I, for one, am willing to deal with real-life stingers to taste the very food of the gods.
True bee or not true bee?
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Current Events, Posts, Robotics, Science
Tagged drones, FIRST Robotics, honey, killer bees, Rachel Carson, Robotics, Scientific American, X-Files
I’m about fully recovered from my recent visit to Texas. Travel is perhaps the greatest form of education. After having my regular government pat-down, and hearing the airport loudspeakers warning me not even to joke with a TSA official, I was in a subdued mood as I awaited my flight. Airlines have learned to fine-tune human vanity. I know they are hurting for money, as many deregulated industries are, and there must be a marketing trick to get people to pay different prices for the arriving at the same destination at the same time. One of the most ridiculous is that of United Airlines’ Priority Access. Don’t get me wrong, I like United Airlines well enough. Their service has generally been on time, and they make being a human sardine as comfortable as possible. Some of the in-flight snacks, if you can afford them, are actually pretty tasty. But first you have to get onto the plane.
Of course, active duty military are free to board at any time. Tree-hugging pacifists, wait your turn. The part that really gets to me is that those held in special esteem by the Airline (i.e., those who can afford to pay more) are invited to board via the “Priority Access Lane.” This “lane” is created by laying a ratty carpet on the left side (or right side, for some gates) of an imaginary line composed of a couple of those retractable belt stanchions. To the left, sheep. To the right, goats. (Or vice-versa. We’re pretty hard to tell apart.) I’ve written about this before, but what caught my attention this time around was that a seeing-eye dog was boarded along with his human, via the “Priority Access Lane.” As I watched my canine brother sauntering towards the jetway, I was lost in thought. Not one sparrow falls to the ground. The privileged are boarding with a dog.
On my return trip home, at the ironically named George Bush International Airport, every few minutes a public announcement was broadcast about the interfaith chapel. Passengers were told that it was available 24 hours a day, and were given its precise location. Over the past couple of years I’ve had to fly a lot. I always notice the airport chapels, and I feel for those who are anxious about flying. I’ve never heard such a p-a announcement encouraging use of these chapels before. Perhaps I’m too fixated on how I never get to walk down the “Priority Access Lane.” I know my place; I was born among the working class, and when the plane goes down, I’ll be among my own kind. But I do feel sorry for the dog. He has no choice but to be classed with those who are, in the airline’s opinion, of higher priority than the common citizen. Next time I think I’ll just wait in the chapel, contemplating how god spelled backward is dog.
Science is how we know things. Most things, at least. One of the fundamental aspects of human life not yet grasped by the great empirical method is creativity. We generally have an idea how it works, but, like so much of human experience, it is difficult to describe precisely. When I saw this month’s Scientific American fronting with the headline “Evolution of Creativity”—two of my favorite topics—I knew I’d have to read it. The article by Heather Pringle zeroes in on the archaeology of very early human history. Before modern human, actually. I’d been telling students for years that the development of such traits as artistic representation, burial, music, and an awareness of some forces “out there” could be found tens of thousands of years ago. These, I suggested, marked the beginnings of religious sensibilities. I’d be willing to go even farther, however, and suggest that we share some of these traits with our fellow creatures. Religion may have a biological basis. That’s not where Pringle is going, however, and she addresses not religion, but creativity.
Pringle suggests that evidence for human technology—modest though it may be—stretches back further than the 40K epoch that seemed to house an explosion of human innovation. She shows how sophisticated knowledge of the environment and corresponding innovations were occurring 77,000 years ago, and even earlier. Some of it stretches back before Homo sapiens; stone weapons may be as early as Homo heidelbergensis and kindling fire as early as Homo erectus. Even our Australopithicene cousins seem to have been happily knapping stones two-and-a-half million years ago. The evidence, at the moment, seems to end there. I wonder, however, how far back cognitive development goes. We tend to underestimate the thinking abilities of animals, despite our constant surprise at how smart they seem to be. How very human! How very male, to assume that everything else is here for our use and pleasure.
Scientists often come upon with astonishment ideas that creative folks have been pondering for centuries. Science must be careful—that is one of its limitations. Creativity, the phenomenon Pringle explores, contains, in the words of Lyn Wadley’s team in Science, chemistry and alchemy. Creativity, like religion, isn’t afraid of magic. No doubt, some scientists will claim that true intelligence only begins with humanity. Looking at the way we treat each other, sometimes I doubt that it begins even there. If there is any hope for us, I would humbly suggest, it will come in the form of creativity. It is that very alchemy that keeps me coming back to science, and science will teach us, eventually, that animals are creative too. When we place ourselves among them, we will have created a world.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Evolution, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Australopithicus, creativity, Evolution, Heather Pringle, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Lyn Wadley, science, science and religion, Scientific American
An opinion piece in Saturday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger highlights the 150th anniversary of T. H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature this month. Well, Huxley may be forgiven for writing in the idiom of his day—he was Darwin’s contemporary after all—when he really meant humanity’s place in nature. The article, by Brian Regal, points out the common fallacy that evolution, as propounded by Darwin, says that we descended from monkeys. Quite apart from the insult to monkeys, Huxley was the one, as Regal notes, who made explicit something about which On the Origin of Species kept decidedly mum: the evolution of humans. People did not descend from monkeys. Nobody except religious opponents ever suggested that they (we) did. Evolution is a biological fact, and monkeys are evolved just as we are evolved. We had a common ancestor somewhere back a few millions of years ago.
This neverending story of religion (of some sorts) fighting evolution should capture the fascination of anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. It shouldn’t be ignored. Darwin wasn’t trying to start any fights. Huxley, well, he may have been, but with good cause. The facts, even in the 1850s, were definitely pointing to descent with modification. In fact, breeders of dogs and pigeons and other animals had known this for centuries. All that Darwin and Huxley attempted was to be intellectually honest with the evidence. It was religious believers who, reading between the lines, picked this fight. The Bible, after all, seemed to say we’d been created on day six (or day one, if you read Genesis 2 literally), and that meant science had to be wrong. Religion is used to setting its own terms. The debate is in the cathedral, not in the academy. Although by the end of the nineteenth century nearly all major branches of the church had come to some kind of understanding of the facts, the issue flared up with again around the time of the First World War with the advent of “social Darwinism.” Then, the religious objectors claimed, we did not descend from monkeys.
Funny thing is, Darwin and Huxley would’ve agreed. Instead, insidious motivation was attributed to some of the greatest minds in science. Accusations were made that everything in the lives of both Darwin and Huxley gainsaid. Natural selection made Darwin ill with its implications, but he could not shy away from the evidence. He believed in truth. Although Huxley coined the term “agnostic” to define his position, he had good reason. The biographies of these scientists are well worth reading before making accusations. So as we stand (or more likely, sit) on the sesquicentennial of Man’s Place in Nature, it might be a good opportunity to assess whence the friction is arising. We claim, in our still limited understanding, that monkeys can’t speak. (I’ve seen the movies and I know differently, nevertheless…) If they could, I imagine the debate would go something like this: “those hairless creatures who say that we are less important than they, they have the audacity to claim a common ancestor with us? Maybe evolution is a myth after all.”
Posted in Animals, Bible, Creationism, Evolution, Genesis, Posts, Science
Tagged Brian Regal, Charles Darwin, Evolution, Man's Place in Nature, New Jersey Star-Ledger, On the Origin of Species, religion and science, T. H. Huxley
Embryonic recapitulation. That’s what it used to be called. I didn’t learn about this in biology class, but rather in the Creationist literature that challenged the very concept. I suppose those deep evolutionary roots are what led me to read Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Not that anyone who’s considered the facts can question evolution, but this book nevertheless took me back along my own evolutionary descent from Fundamentalism to a reluctant rationalism. I recall the frequently repeated Fundie catch phrase, “no transitional forms.” Probably what they were looking for was a mermaid-like creature that was half reptile and half bird, divided down the middle. Even at a tender age, while accepting their rhetoric, I wondered why archaeopteryx didn’t qualify. A flying feathered lizard? Sounded pretty transitional to me. Shubin opens his fascinating account with the discovery of Tiktaalik, a transitional form in every sense of the word. Here is a fossil that shows the tell-tale limbs and organs of moving from fish to amphibian. Yes, Virginia, there is evolution.
Shubin doesn’t stop there, however. He traces the various features of human bodies back to our piscine ancestors. From gills to gonads, we are bipedal, air-breathing, mammalian fish. No surprises there, really. One gets the sense that Shubin’s book wouldn’t be such a wonder if there weren’t organized Creationists out there constantly challenging the obvious. All living things on this planet are clearly related. Some of the cousins may be very, very distant, but we are all part of the same family. This threatens Creationists and others who need to feel different, special. People are related to God, they suppose, in ways that mere animals are not. Biology gainsays that concept, so no matter how much evidence we might marshal, the Fundamentalist is duty-bound to reject it. We’re trying to break up a personal relationship here, after all.
While Shubin does a wonderful job of explaining whence our biological features, I was nevertheless heartened to read him referring to the essence of being human. Some scientists reject “essence” as a vague concept that can’t be examined in a laboratory. That may be true, but we all know what an essence is. As a concept it too has explanatory value. It would be very difficult to read Your Inner Fish and come out doubting evolution. At the same time, Shubin realizes that people write books, and fish do not. That’s not to say that we’re superior to our fishy family, but that we are different. We have our own essences. That doesn’t mean we were created this way—maybe we’ve just evolved with them. Either way, Shubin is charming romp though 3.5 billion years of our history.
Posted in Animals, Books, Creationism, Evolution, Memoirs, Posts, Science
Tagged Archaeopteryx, Creationism, essence, Evolution, Fundamentalism, Neil Shubin, Tiktaalik, Your Inner Fish
I wonder if this is how religions get started. Yesterday President Obama continued the lighthearted tradition of pardoning two turkeys prior to Thanksgiving. There has been a gifting of turkeys to the United States president at least as far back as the Harry S. Truman years, but the pardoning began, as did many myths, in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan took considerable heat for pardoning Oliver North after his crimes in the Iran-Contra Affair. Handling criticism with a joke (again, of which there was no shortage in those days), he offhandedly mentioned pardoning the turkey. Reagan had already decided not to eat the bird and had it sent to a petting zoo. The first recorded official pardoning came in 1989 with George H. W. Bush. This seems so close to the origins of the concept of salvation that I have to pause and baste in the implications. Pardon is only effective when there is guilt involved, so presumably turkeys sin. The only sin that suggests itself is gluttony, but I’ve seen more than my share of wild turkeys and they seem to have any natural weight problems under control.
Ironically, the guilt in this case seems to rest with those who do the pardoning. Turkeys grow fat because they are raised to do so. They are, like most eating animals, sacrificial victims—sinless and slaughtered. Again, there is another beautiful religious trope here, but we seldom sing the praises of the noble turkey that takes away the hunger of the (first) world. So, as crimes are committed in real time, we can shift the focus to the turkey. The analogy with sheep in the first century is apt. Like the turkey, the sheep was known as a creature of rather simple mental capacity. The lamb was sacrificed for sins it did not commit. Yet we don’t sing hymns to the noble turkey. In fact, Thanksgiving, being a non-commercial holiday, has largely been eclipsed by Black Friday.
I see a future religion in which the turkey plays a supporting role. All we, like turkeys, have gone a-peckin’. Turkeys have no shepherds, but they are kept in tiny cages, and the pardoned pair are the great Moses and Aaron of the turkey world. They are released to live out the rest of their short, obese lives in relative comfort, having been messianically chosen from before hatching to be spared the fate of being consumed by the ultimate consumer. This is the very stuff (stuffing?) around which Bibles are written. The theology here is as thick as gravy. As a vegetarian, however, my sympathies are with the birds. Heaven help us all when the pardoned pair come back and declare, “Let my turkeys go!”
Posted in Animals, Current Events, Holidays, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Black Friday, George H. W. Bush, gluttony, Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, sacrifice, Thanksgiving