As a bird with the incredible gift of resurrection, the Phoenix is one of the most enduring symbols of Greek mythology. We, as people, are pretty accustomed to messing things up and the hope of renewal is something we earnestly crave. The Phoenix, when its long life is over, goes up in a burst of flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. Christians early latched onto this poignant symbol, as have many other religions. In origin the Phoenix is likely related to the sun mythos. Isn’t there always a small shadow of fear that somehow it might fail to rise tomorrow morning, plunging us all into interminable darkness? The Phoenix is a harbinger of hope. These are my thoughts as I soar, birdlike, toward Phoenix, Arizona. A city named after the resurrecting bird. I’m not certain what awaits me here—I’ve never been to Arizona before, but I do know it is desert, and that life in the desert is always precarious. I’m glad to have brought my mythology with me.
Phoenix was, appropriately enough for October, first named Pumpkinville. It is difficult to imagine this sixth most populous city in the United States coming to prominence under that moniker. Since it is October, however, there is an aptness to such history. My trip, as most of my travel, relates to business rather than pleasure—there is a kind of hope in resurrection here as well. As a city in the desert, resurrection would seem to be central to those millions who call Phoenix home. Indeed, the concept of the gods as we know them seems to have been conceived and born in the harsh environment of desiccated lands. Some suggest the Phoenix was originally taken from Egyptian lore. Egypt was, outside the Nile delta, a nation only a few miles wide, snaking alongside a life-giving river in the wilderness.
What is it about deserts that brings the spiritual to mind? It always seemed to me that it was an issue of utter dependence. People living in a harsh environment need all the help they can get. It is difficult to suppose that harsh deities might arise in perfect circumstances. Today Phoenix depends more on engineering and control of the environment than on providence. The gods of the desert nevertheless find a home here. Even if they have adapted to an affluent lifestyle. As go the experiences of people, so go the fortune of the gods. And resurrecting birds.
Posted in Animals, Classical Mythology, Deities, Egypt, Posts, Religious Origins, Travel
Tagged Arizona, Egypt, Greek mythology, Phoenix, Pumpkinville, resurrection
Last week’s Sunday Review in the New York Times included a piece tucked under Opinion entitled “Dogs Are People, Too.” Gregory Berns, the article’s author, a professor at Emory University, describes how he trained his dog to enter and remain still inside an MRI machine long enough to scan brain activity. The results, repeated on other trained dogs, indicated that dogs share the same level of sentience as a human child. Berns’ conclusion: dogs are persons. I tend to agree. Although I’m no longer a pet “owner,” I grew up with dogs (and cats, birds, reptiles, and hamsters). There was never any question in my mind that our dogs could think. The also shared emotions with people—as Holmes would say, it’s elementary. Obvious. Staring at you with puppy-dog-brown-eyes-right-in-the-face obvious. Science, however, has always had an uneasy relationship with consciousness, the ghost in the machine. Dogs, many declare, are just machines. They salivate at the sound of a bell, for goodness sake!
Berns, however, has found the holy grail of scientific proof. The brain scan is accepted as a measure of human conscious activity. It is difficult enough to lure a human into an MRI and have her or him hold still. Dogs, however, are smart. They can be trained to do this too. Berns has succeeded and now has evidence that the emotional centers in dogs’ brains respond much like human brains. If they are emotional beings, as many of us knew all along, they are persons. Berns points out that this has legal implications. We make laws about unborn humans, but we treat fully alive canines like, well, dogs. Consciousness is part of the animal, and perhaps even the plant world. That stands to reason, if not scientific proof.
Christianity is largely responsible for advocating the concept of human superiority. We are, after all, made in the image of God. The Bible tells me so. Although scientists tend to abandon the Bible, they retain the myth of human superiority. Some concepts are just too convenient to relinquish, even in a rational world. We assume, since animals don’t talk the way that people do, that they are not thinking creatures. Even scientists appear afraid, at times, to take on the immaterial concept of thought. If the materialistic view is correct, thoughts are only electrochemical signals. Only this, and nothing more. As time nears to get dressed for work, I’d like to send my electrochemical signals out to get the paper. If I do the paper will still be on the lawn when I get home at the end of the day. I’ll have to fetch my own slippers, I guess.
Need I say more?
Posted in Animals, Bible, Consciousness, Posts, Science
Tagged Bible, Consciousness, Dogs Are People, Emory University, materialism, New York Times, Sunday Reviewm Gregory Berns
Whether we climb up or down the evolutionary scale, one factor remains constant—our human sense of superiority. Despite the castigation of biblical-era thinking in the eyes of many scientists, few are willing to relinquish that Genesis-bestowed sense of being the pinnacle of nature. We know the universe is vast, but we assume we’re the best and brightest in it. Climbing down the ladder a bit, we like to distance ourselves from our fellow creatures because of our superior mental capacity. That is why I am so engrossed by scientists who explore animal intelligence. We find we are not so different after all. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell is such a book.
If you’re like most people in this electronic age, you probably haven’t given much thought to corvids. Corvids are the members of the crow family: ravens, jays, magpies, and, of course, crows. Scientists have long known that these birds are exceptionally intelligent, and Marzluff and Angell have written a spell-binding little book that shows a remarkable level of intellect among the birds. Documented cases of tool making and use, conscientious interaction, and perhaps even language, have occurred among the corvids. We try to shoo them from our crops with “scarecrows” and we poison them en masse when they become “pests,” but when we take the time to understand them, we find that we may be far darker than the crows.
Not that Gifts of the Crow is all that easy-going. There is plenty of brain physiognomy and quite a bit about brain chemistry here as well. Knowing that not all of us are scientists, though, Marzluff and Angell include a generous portion of narrative description of what corvids have been observed to accomplish. For three days in a row I climbed off the bus stunned, scanning the skies for crows, just to see for myself. In this suburban jungle outside the New York City metropolitan area, crows aren’t so abundant as they were when I lived in the Midwest. They will, however, serve to remind me, when I see one, that our privileged place in nature has more to do with our thumbs than with our intelligence. When I saw a solitary crow atop a tree during a neighborhood stroll after finishing the book, I stopped, smiled, and bowed. Nature belongs to each and every creature, and there sat one intelligent enough to appreciate it.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Books, Consciousness, Evolution, Posts, Science
Tagged animal intelligence, Bible, corvids, crows, Evolution, Gifts of the Crow, John Marzluff, New York City, Tony Angell
Although Yom Kippur is now over, I have a confession to make. My wife just showed me eScapegoat, the website where you can confess your sins over the virtual priest laying electronic hands on a disturbingly cute animated goat. Even before I owned a computer (or one owned me), and even before I knew of the internet, I used to joke with friends what the technological revolution would mean for religions. Would we eventually go to an ATM for virtual communion? Would the screen glow with the words of the eucharistic liturgy, Rite 1, or would it be more contemporary (Jesus raised the glass and said, “This blood’s for you!”)? Would a physical wafer come through the slot? If so, would it have to have been pre-consecrated? So our bemused musings ran. But our idle thoughts held a touch of prophetic insight, it seems. Can the force of religion come through the keys upon which your fingers rest? The monitor that glows like heaven itself? Whence electronic salvation?
There can be no doubt that religion is a huge topic on the internet. I generally don’t go looking for it, because it will come to me. Religions, by their very nature, spread. They are aggressive memes, wanting desperately to replicate themselves. Our frail human minds want so much to believe that we have found the truth, and once we have, we want to share it with others. Bibles were among the first books off the first printing press. Television soon evolved televangelists. The internet became the home of virtual religion. For some it is reality, nothing virtual about it. Concepts such as grace, however, defy any kind of clear exposé, there’s always shadows in this room. Can it make its way, preveniently, through the wires and waves of the internet?
eScapegoat is lighthearted, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more serious side to it. Confession on the internet can be cheap. Anonymity (excepting, of course, the NSA) is easily maintained. Your confession, visible to the faith community, is really between you and the Almighty, right? The book of James tells us confession is good for the soul, or something similar. We all know that admitting a mistake has its own cathartic release, but I found confession, in my Anglo-Catholic days, terribly invasive. Surely I knew that I’d made errors, and I knew that I felt badly about them. Did I really have to tell someone else so that I would feel bad about them all over again, reopening wounds that had already begun to heal? Isn’t this the beauty of eScapegoat? You can make a serious confession that others will see anonymously as a joke. Our poor, blinking goat will pay the ultimate price.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged confession, Escapegoat, grace, James, memes, ritual, Yom Kippur
One of the lesser known Bruce Springsteen songs is “County Fair.” I hadn’t heard the song until I purchased The Essential Bruce Springsteen some years back when you actually had to buy a disc to get the music. Not a rock-n-roll anthem, it is a quiet, poignant song about the existential pleasures of a county fair. My daughter has been a 4-H member for six years and we’ve annually attended our county fair-the largest free fair east of the Mississippi, it is said-each of those years. In a good year 10,000 people will wander through, looking at farm animals that seem so foreign in our urban lives and which most people only recognize covered in gravy or some glaze. They see the exotic animals and pets so cute that they should be illegal. Like a fledgling college campus there are Arts and Sciences tents. Model planes, model trains, and model automobiles. To a sophisticated adult this might seem like pretty mind-numbing stuff, but I never fail to leave feeling inspired. I play “County Fair” religiously before heading out the door. Yesterday saw the close of the sixty-fifth Somerset County 4-H Fair, and despite the periodic showers, people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Under the commercial tent stands the Gideons’ table. Each year the fair is literally littered with free Bibles. I noticed with interest that the sign, which had originally read “Free Testaments” had been redacted to “Free New Testaments.” I tried to imagine the conversations, or confrontations that led to such a change. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect Hebrew Bible professors are not among the higher demographics of fair attendees. Most of the colleagues I know would never confront a poor Gideonite about ambiguously handing out New Testaments. I did, however, experience a kind of existential downgrade here. Christians used to declare, doctrinally at least, that the “testaments” were equal. Sure, when you’re standing on the George Washington Bridge trying to decide whether or not to jump, there’s some parts of the older testament that you’d probably be better off not reading. Nevertheless, doesn’t the rule book say the two are part of a whole?
Nationally, as I well know, there are fewer “Old Testament” jobs than “New Testament.” But that slick little book the Gideons hand out feels a lot more streamlined than the bulky full edition. And I also realize that walking around a relaxing event like a county fair, seeking the most innocent kinds of fun imaginable, that a Bible in your hip pocket is probably overkill. There seems to be no devil lurking here among the sheep and the goats. Feet damp from the rain, under a cloudy, August nighttime sky, sitting in the car my daughter reflects on how this is her last fair as a 4-H member. I wish there were some twinkling stars overhead to make this a storybook ending. But all I’ve got is a truncated Bible in my pocket, and it is missing my favorite part.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Rock-n-Roll
Tagged 4-H, Bible, Bruce Springsteen, county fair, Gideons, Somerset County 4-H, The Essential Bruce Springsteen
Science is, according to Taner Edis, ambitious. While Science and Nonbelief is somewhat sympathetic to the religiously minded, Edis demonstrates how science aggressively tackles the issues steadfastly claimed by religions, and ultimately triumphs. Interestingly enough, early on in the book Edis notes that “truth” is a philosophical concept, and science operates on the principle of the best explanatory theory of the moment. So far I am in complete agreement. I guess the part that gives me the most trouble is the assumption that reason is the only way of knowing. Perhaps I’m just not enough of a scientist to know such things, but it appears to me that all “lower” animals appear to get along very well in the world without great doses of “reason” that supposedly catapult humanity far above the other species. Scientific observation would seem to confirm that many animals feel emotion—after all, what is fight or flight if not an emotional response? And since we are animals, I reason, have we lost something when we leave feeling aside as a way of knowing?
Edis is quite fair-minded. He notes that science has no way to prove or disprove the existence of a deity, or deities, but he also states that the empirical method is so successful that a spiritual world is no longer required. He may be correct. The vast majority of the people in the world feel he is wrong, however. I may state this since we know, statistically, that most people in the world believe in some form of religion. Rational or not, here they come! It would seem that evolution has endowed us with religion, or an awareness of something we feel rather than reasoning out. And yet, we are told, science takes no prisoners.
I often ponder the fact that no one person has all the answers. Part of the human condition involves possessing limited resources for specializing in too many fields. Polymaths become rarer each year as specialists grow more and more precise. In this great mix of human learning, science often steps in and claims all the marbles belong to it. The rest of us have lost ours, apparently. There’s no denying that applied science has been very successful in bettering our understanding of our universe and our lot in the world. That doesn’t mean that all will believe in it. The title of Edis’ book is apt; belief is the real issue in attempting to fit religion and science into the same world. It is quite clear that religion doesn’t explain much in the way of the natural world. I wonder, however, if science is really capable of encapsulating all of what it means to be human.
Posted in Animals, Books, Consciousness, Evolution, Posts, Sects
Tagged animal intelligence, Consciousness, Reason, religion and science, Science and Nonbelief, Taner Edis
Rupert Sheldrake raises the ire of some of his fellow scientists. Science has increasingly allied itself with a strict kind of materialism, although, as Sheldrake repeatedly points out, evidence for such absolute materialism is lacking. This is not to challenge science, but simply to note that we may not yet have all of the data. The Sense of Being Stared At considers possible scientific explanations for unconventional situations we all experience from time to time. Who hasn’t felt eyes on them and turned around to find somebody looking? A number of other “impossible” scenarios also find their way into this intriguing book. Sheldrake suggests that such phenomena can start to be explained scientifically if we allow that the mind is not the same thing as the brain. Sure beats a Christmas party with B. F. Skinner, where every present is inevitable.
Materialism feels threatened when spooky action at a distance occurs. As Sheldrake points out, however, we are willing enough to accept it if an invisible “field,” one that we can’t even feel, is posited. Take magnetism, for example. Few people doubt that magnetism is a real force. We’ve never actually seen it, but its effects are clearly visible. Taking this as a starting point, Sheldrake suggests that various psi phenomena involve such fields. The scientific studies that have been undertaken on many of these “spooky” scenarios show statistically that chance may be safely ruled out. And, if the experience of many ordinary people counts for anything, even our pets and other animals may possess minds.
Ironically, the mind (with its taint of being associated with religious concepts such as the soul) is one of the most contentious phenomena in science. Many materialists deny its existence, suggesting it is merely some epiphenomenon of our brains’ electro-chemical processes. Yet these scientists still, one presumes, insist on being treated with respect and being paid for their work, although these mere trifles are just odds and sods clinging to the edges of a materialistic abyss. To me, work like that of Rupert Sheldrake is crucial for an honest assessment of the evidence. Maybe not everyone accepts that dogs know when their “owners” are coming home, and maybe Sheldrake’s morphic fields have yet to be confirmed, be it is clear, when all the evidence is considered, these phenomena do actually happen on occasion. Instead of simply dismissing something because it shouldn’t be, or can’t be, according to materialism, why do we find accepting the evidence so frightening? Is it perhaps the fear of being watched?
Posted in Animals, Books, Consciousness, Posts, Science
Tagged B. F. Skinner, magnetism, materialism, mind, morphic fields, psi, Rupert Sheldrake, The Sense of Being Stared At
When possible, I like to follow up on events I mention on this blog. A few weeks back I mentioned the plight of the horseshoe crab and red knot, the bird species that feeds upon the crab eggs. Hurricane Sandy put the world’s largest nesting area for horseshoe crabs, compromised by human development, in serious danger. Ecological scientists, concerned for the fate of these intertwined species, frantically tried to rebuild eroded beaches so that the Christian crabs could sacrifice their children to the ravenous red knots. (Nature’s ebb and flow, it turns out, doesn’t always favor the unborn.) The good news is, that thanks-at least partially-to the efforts of the environmental engineers, crabs turned out en masse this year, and the red knots, on their transglobal migration, had plenty to eat. It is encouraging to hear that once in a while people impact their environment for good.
Perhaps unwittingly, a member of the American Littoral Society (which I am glad to learn does actually exist) was quoted in the New Jersey Star-Ledger as saying, “There was the potential for a catastrophe after Sandy.” I’m taking his words, intentionally, out of context because of their wisdom. Many people had, on the basis of human losses alone, already declared Hurricane Sandy a catastrophe. This simple quote is perhaps the most honest assessment of the universe it which we find ourselves. From the viewpoint of the not-human, Sandy was a catastrophe averted. The crabs, perhaps unconsciously, did what their biology programmed them to do. The birds feasted, and nature resumed its usual course. Humans weren’t in the center of this picture. We were supporting characters behind the scenes. There had been potential for catastrophe. Nature survived. Thrived, even.
Photo credit Carbon NYC, from WikiMedia
I do not in any way demean the material losses that many people suffered, and continue to suffer, because of the hurricane. Unlike us, however, horseshoe crabs have very limited options. They can’t fly to Las Vegas to propagate, legally or not. They can’t fell timber and build cabins in the woods. They can’t put up an igloo and survive Arctic winters. We the people have endless choices about where to settle. Every environment on the planet, except under water, we have explored, exploited, and populated. We are bound by the very statistics that we are told run this universe, to be in harm’s way once in a while. Human loss of life due to Sandy was not massive. We can rebuild. We do rebuild. The loss of horseshoe crab habitat could have spelled the end of two species of fellow inhabitants on this globe. Catastrophe was avoided. At least from the multiple eyes of the humble horseshoe crab.
Elijah is a folkloric character. Despite the common misperception, most of us who study religion know the difference between myth and reality. There are, nevertheless, lots of engaging traditions about Elijah. Even in our secular culture we joke about leaving a door open or an empty chair available for the disappearing prophet.
It is difficult not to like Robert L. Park. Reading his Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science was often a pleasure. I read Park’s Voodoo Science a few months back, and I enjoyed his supreme rationality very much. Many of the weird beliefs he decries clearly deserve his denunciatory treatment. Like many among the New Atheist movement, he believes that rationality, scientific thinking, will eventually displace religion completely. The final line of his book, “Science is the only way of knowing—everything else is just superstition,” however, maybe overlooking some vital information. In the first instance, scientists are humans too.
There’s no question that much of what Park writes makes perfectly good sense. The God of the gaps is gasping, indeed, dying. Double-blind prayer experiments just can’t work. Evolution does work. Quantum mechanics are abused by many New Agers. This all makes sense. There are, however, some gaps that rationality misses as well.
It has always bothered me that reality is much more than human senses reveal. Rationality is based on the premise that we have, or can discover, all the facts. There is an unseemly arrogance to it. We know, rationally, that “lower” animals experience sensory input unavailable to us. In many ways, Spot is more intelligent than his human “owner.” We use bloodhounds to find people for precisely that reason. We know that “bird brains” navigate in ways impossible for humans to emulate. Even a bee drunk with nectar can buzz its way home. And these are only the life forms that evolved on earth. Our rational knowledge is only a tiny fraction of all possible knowledge. And I’m not convinced that science is really the only way of knowing it. I just feel it in my gut. It’s a big universe out there, full of possibilities we haven’t yet encountered. Is the evolved human brain, limited as it is, the sole arbiter of reality? Is there some form of thought we have not yet reached? I will continue to enjoy reading books like Superstition. I will also, however, continue to leave the door open just a crack, in case Elijah does show up after all.
Posted in Animals, Books, Consciousness, Posts, Science
Tagged Belief in the Age of Science, Elijah, God of the gaps, New Atheists, Robert L. Park, Robert Park, superstition, Voodoo Science
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