Thursday, October 29, 2015

Human Nature in the Bible and in Lucretius

It is interesting that the pagan philosopher Lucretius, a Roman living in the early Christian era, had a better understanding of human nature than did any of the writers of the Bible. Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, usually translated On the Nature of Things, although I sometimes wonder if a better translation might not be On the Backside of Nature. Ha. It is a long poem about what Lucretius thought was everything. All about matter (he said everything was made from particles), every aspect of science, and the entire history of the world, ending with the Plague of Athens (which leads historians to believe that he died before finishing the poem). As is any work  from two millennia ago that attempts to be scientific, it has some howling mistakes, but was a pretty good try. In later essays I will tell you more about this remarkable work, even though I find it difficult to read. But for now I would like to focus on his theory of the origins of human society.

Lucretius described prehistoric men in Book Five. He said they were stronger than modern men, “of larger bones and heavier frame” (Book Five, line 927), their strength not sapped by exposure to heat or cold, and without agriculture. They would sleep at night under blankets of leaves. Night did not frighten them. They lived off of wild fruits and seeds, which, it so happened, were bigger than modern wild fruits and seeds. They slaked their thirst from streams and springs, which Lucretius poetically described (“living water…Laved the moist rocks…O’er the green moss it trickled…”). They hadn’t figured out how to use fire or make clothes from animal skins. In addition, each man looked out for himself, unconcerned about the common good: “Whate’er chance offered unto each he took, well schooled to live and thrive each for himself alone.” Not only that, but they made reckless love: men and women either chose their lovers or else men would fight for women—or sometimes buy their love by giving them “arbute berries, acorns, [or] gathered pears.” They hunted wild animals with clubs or by throwing rocks at them. The certainty of death did not frighten them; in fact, if they knew they were going to die, they would drink poison.

Then, said Lucretius, humans began to get soft when they formed families and started living in huts and forming pacts with neighbors. They had primitive languages, at first just imitating the sounds of things, in a manner not entirely different from the way animals (including mythic Molossian hounds) communicate by making different sounds for different meanings. Then, humans received the gift of fire not from a god but from nature, and once they had it, they could cook and soften their foods.

The next step was when humans with the best ideas began to persuade other humans to follow them, and begin to live together in cities, which led toward civilization but also toward oppression; in particular, whoever had the most gold had the most power, regardless of the fact that other people were smarter or lovelier. Lucretius notes that true happiness is to be found in “simple modesty with heart content; For where a little is, there is no lack” (lines 1124-1125), but civilization glorified the rich. Within and between nations, men fought one another for gain: “So it is now, and evermore shall be” (line 1138).

So kings did fall, and all the ancient pride
Of lordly thrones and haughty scepters lay
O’erturned in lowly dust; and stained with blood
The glorious diadem of kingly heads
Beneath the feet of swarming mobs…

(lines 1139-1143). Sounds like the poem Ozymandias, doesn’t it? Only Lucretius wrote this almost two millennia earlier than Shelley. But in some cases, Lucretius said, people “might of their own accord submit themselves to regulations” (lines 1152-1153), allowing the rule of law to create peace rather than having constant war. Men grew weary of a life of violence, he said.

Next Lucretius explains the origin of religion. It began with dreams, in which people saw great and powerful beings. It was not a big stretch to attribute to these gods the origin and operation of the heavens and the Earth. It almost sounds like Lucretius was an atheist—not only because, throughout his poem, he attributes everything that happens in the natural world to particles, but also because in Book Five he wrote, “O hapless human kind, when unto gods such deeds it hath assigned…” (lines 1194-1195). He describes religious practices, such as sacrificing beasts at altars, with scarcely-concealed disdain. It is far better, Lucretius says, “To view all things with heart and mind at peace” (line 1206). Lucretius implies that it is pretty stupid to believe that lightning bolts and storms at sea are caused by angry gods; so if you are caught out in one, you may get lucky or you may not, but don’t bother with supplications to the gods.

To finish out Book Five, Lucretius writes about the history of metallurgy, then of war, culminating in the use of elephants as fighting machines. He speculated in lines 1343-1345 that things might have gone differently on some other world. He said men, not women, made the technological advances and invented agriculture. Then he ends his discourse on the history of civilization with the intention of the flute. Isn’t that nice?

Very well. From our modern viewpoint, Lucretius’ history of humankind is pretty weird, especially the part about men buying love from prehistoric whores by offering them arbute berries (genus Arbutus, family Ericaceae). Where the heck did he get that idea?

But remember that Lucretius was working from a position of having absolutely no data about human prehistory. The only other cultural groups of whom he knew, such as the Etruscans and Gauls, were not substantially different from Romans prior to civilization. (Gauls were, we must remember, an agricultural society that replaced previous tribes in what is now France at least six thousand years before Lucretius wrote.) Lucretius had no information about primitive people. (Do we? The supposedly primitive Amazonian tribes are actually the remnants of a collapsed Amazonian civilization.) As Lucretius wrote, the bones of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal and the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were hiding, completely unknown, in European caves. So he resorted to speculation. It was either that or not write anything at all.

But, against all odds, Lucretius’ picture of human prehistory and history is not too different from our modern understanding, and strikingly different from Genesis. Genesis does not even recognize a prehistoric phase of human history: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were already completely modern, had the capacity for language, and within one generation their children had the ability to raise crops and livestock. Today we understand that the human body has, indeed, evolved to be more gracile largely because of the invention of cooking and of society. According to Richard Wrangham’s “cooking hypothesis,” cooking allowed more protein for the evolutionary expansion of the brain. And most paleoanthropologists understand that, since primitive humans fought with weapons or, sometimes, figured out ways to not fight, their canine teeth evolved to be smaller. That is, we have bigger brains and smaller teeth because of cooking and cooperation—which is exactly what Lucretius said two thousand years ago. And Lucretius explained how religion evolved. He didn’t quite get it right—his version omits the role of sexual selection in the origin of religion—but at least he understood that it evolved, which Genesis says nothing about. In Genesis, religion began because God walked around in the Garden of Eden and chatted with Adam and Eve. And Lucretius had the same disdain for religious practices that most modern scientists have.

There you have it. With regard to the origin of humans, and of human society, the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius was more correct than even a figurative interpretation of Genesis.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Consumer alert

STAY AWAY FROM SEARS. I had to buy a new refrigerator today (not Sears) for $750. The one that died was a Kenmore from Sears that was only two years old, just outside of the warranty. I have patronized the Sears store in Durant Okla only twice, and both times were utter disasters. I bought an electric lawn mower from them that melted: someone at Sears decided to put a motor in a plastic casing. Fortunately that was under warranty. We have had troubles up in Tulsa also, where they HALF installed an electric stove and we had to install it the rest of the way. I rescued my food and stored it in the office fridge. STAY AWAY FROM SEARS.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Vote for Chafee! Oops, too late

...but Darwin would have voted for Chafee! He says so on the Youtube channel StanEvolve. Here is the direct link to the video!

Believing What You See

I heard a recent radio program about cosmology, which includes not just the beginning of the universe but its end as well. Cosmologists have pretty much abandoned the idea of an oscillating universe; Nobel-prize-winning research showed that an inflation event soon after the Big Bang has caused galaxies to fly apart faster and faster forever. The energy source for this inflation seems to be dark energy, whatever that is.

One consequence of this is that, were an astronomer in the far distant future to look out into the sky, he or she or it would see only the stars of our galaxy, should any still be burning. The other galaxies would have moved away faster and faster, eventually moving away at the speed of light, at which time they would be invisible. Should this astronomer have any stories or images left over from us, about billions of galaxies, would not this astronomer simply believe his, her, or its own eyes, and considered our belief in galaxies to be mere fables?

And since there is no evidence of the Big Bang within our galaxy, such a future astronomer would be unable to deduce this fundamental explanation of the history of everything.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Resource Spaces of (Bestial) Competition

Wherever there is a resource space, entities capable of reproduction will inhabit it and begin fighting one another. This can be bacteria in a broth, humans fighting over territory, ideas competing with one another for attention in the collective human mind. I have witnessed competition and outright war in a place I would never have expected it, in a resource space that I created. I refer to the comments on my YouTube channel.

Yes, I created a resource space when I started my YouTube channel in 2010. On this channel, I pretend to be Charles Darwin, and I take an often humorous look at bite-sized evolutionary concepts. I try very hard to do outrageous and funny things, often drawing the humor upon myself. You know, things like falling off of a cliff or into a river. Like most channels it got a slow start, but it quickly built up to have over five hundred followers. I have to date had over 34,000 views. Check it out. It’s fun and you’ll learn a lot.

Viewers post comments on this as on most other YouTube channels. Sometimes, the comments are pretty insulting to me. Some are insulting to the guests I interview. But this is pretty rare. I more commonly get appreciative comments. What really surprised me recently is that the people have started posting comments about one another, making some pretty brutal statements not against me but against other viewers. In effect, I have created a resource space in which people, hidden in anonymity, can wage war on one another, with few rules of decency.

It is awesome. And awful, too. I marvel at it. For a while, there was a war between someone named Atheist Rex and someone named Raining Fire, who was (or pretended to be; one cannot know) a fundamentalist. They wished death upon one another; Raining Fire fervently desired that God would rain fire down out of heaven on Atheist Rex and kill his or her children. For a while, I began to wonder if I should report this activity to Homeland Security. But, they probably know about it already. Anyway, they might just be playing. No language is off limits, for either the atheists or the Christians.

Usually the arguments are just name-calling and counter-name-calling (you’re-so-stupid-all-you-can-do-is-name-calling etc.) Sometimes the arguments can take an interesting turn. Somehow the topic of abortion came up—a topic I never remember mentioning online. Prepare yourselves for some interesting mind-expanding concepts here. A woman (unless the photo is fake) accused Atheist Rex of supporting the mass genocide of babies in abortion clinics. Atheist Rex responded that God one time commanded the killing of all the babies in the world: at the time of Noah’s Flood. Good point. Then the woman responded that the babies were not really human, because demons had sex with human women and produced satanic spawn who needed to be killed in the Flood. That’s a pretty creative idea—one that, incidentally, is not in the Bible. So far they have not discussed the fact that, according to the book of Joshua, God commanded the killing of entire populations, including the children—and these were humans, not half-satanic creatures. Anyway, it was the first time I ever opened my inbox and found 45 comments only slightly connected with my video. The video was about the dinosaur tracks in the bed of the Paluxy River in Texas. A similar flurry of activity has continued since this original flare-up.

I’ll just mention that I refuse to take responsibility for any of this craziness. I am like a man who purchased land and built a school on it, with a playground. The man is not responsible for the bullies fighting one another on the playground.

And I will just sit back and see what happens next. Thank God they cannot track one another down. I hope.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Happy Columbus Day, Part 2

Despite all of the things I wrote about in the previous entry, conservatives insist that we honor Christopher Columbus.

I started to go to the Conservapedia website to learn their view about Columbus, but Web of Trust (WOT) displayed a red circle and announced that this website was untrustworthy and dangerous for child safety. I had to specifically give my browser permission to continue going there. I felt a tingling of danger, as if I was sneaking a peek at pornography.

I can see why Conservapedia (the right-wing twisted-logic imitation of Wikipedia) would be considered untrustworthy. But why would Conservapedia be considered a dangerous website for children?

One of the things that conservatives hate the most is what they call revisionist history. They hate it when modern scholars tell us to rethink our assumptions about Christopher Columbus being a great hero of Christianity; or the same assumption about the Pilgrims; or to reject our cherished myth about How the West Was Won by heroic whites shooting dirty Native Americans.

Conservatives want to cling to the 1950’s-western-movie version of history, and to the assumption that God established the United States of America as his holy white land. It is easy to understand that it is dangerous to raise kids to think these things. If cowboys who shot Indians were heroes, then maybe, the kids might think, it is just fine to do the same thing today. For why else do their conservative parents keep caches of arms and ammo? Perhaps, then, Conservapedia, which enables (even though it does not expressly promote) a white supremacist version of history, is dangerous to kids for the same reason that jihadist sites are. I don’t know; jihadist sites appear to be blocked on my browser, so I don’t know whether they would show up with red circles or not. I can find only news sites and anti-jihad (including moderate Muslim anti-jihad) sites.

And now, continuing with Columbus. I was googling to find out what conservatives actually say about Columbus. I expected all of them to praise Columbus as the man who brought the light of Christianity to heathen Natives who deserved to be enslaved. And some conservative writers come pretty close to this (see below). However, most of the conservative sites I found openly admit the evil things that Columbus did. This included the Conservapedia entry, which provided a harrowing list of the evil things that Columbus did. As a matter of fact, this entry mentioned some things that the progressive historians sometimes do not, such as how Columbus’ men would skewer the Natives on pikes. The author conveniently omitted the part about cutting off hands, but was otherwise quite honest about Columbus’ brutality. I am glad that I checked up on what conservatives actually say rather than just lashing out at what I thought they said. I wish they would be so careful in criticizing progressives.

However, by means of mental contortion, conservatives have figured out a way to ignore the evil things that Columbus did, right after admitting them. Here is how Conservapedia and another conservative website (The American Conservative) did it.

  • First, Conservapedia claims that the main person to accuse Columbus of crimes against humanity was Ward Churchill, a professor who lost his job because of “academic dishonesty.” By claiming that Churchill was a bad man, they imply, though they do not say, that all accusations against Columbus are unreliable. We progressives do not base our opposition to Columbus upon Ward Churchill.
  • Second, right after they admit that the 500 Taino captives that Columbus sent back to the slave markets of Seville were the first instance of an American slave trade, Conservapedia hastens to point out that more Natives died of European diseases than died of slavery. I guess that, since slavery was not the number one cause of death, then it can be safely ignored. Imagine applying this argument to current events today. “Diabetes kills more people than ISIS, therefore ISIS isn’t so bad” is a 21st-century equivalent to “diseases killed more Natives than did slavery, therefore slavery wasn’t so bad.” I must note that Conservapedia did not say that slavery wasn’t so bad, but they clearly used disease as a way of minimizing the horror of slavery.
  • Third, Conservapedia claimed that since the critics of Columbus had not adequately defined genocide, then this word cannot be used to describe the actions of Columbus. However, this contradicts what is written earlier in the entry, which says that within a space of 60 years a Native population of over a million on Hispaniola was totally wiped out. (I don’t know where they got these figures, but notice that they are even worse than the table of numbers I reported previously.) Only a rabid conservative would question whether or not this constituted genocide.
  • Fourth, a writer for The American Conservative noted that all groups of people have had a brutal history. He proceeded to mention other acts of brutality in human history. Of course, this does not mean that we should admire Columbus. If conservatives revered a day to celebrate the Wounded Knee massacre, I would oppose it just as I do Columbus Day. I don’t think Cambodians should celebrate Pol Pot Day, if there is one. And so on. This conservative argument is only a diversion.

It is by such mental contortions that many conservatives deflect attention away from the evil things Columbus did, evils they will admit, and get their readers and admirers to turn against scholars and teachers who want to teach the truth about Columbus. I can only wonder how many home school conservatives teach their kids that Columbus was God’s humble servant.

Some conservatives, however, go much further in trying to sanitize and sanctify Columbus. Kenyn Cureton, vice president of the Family Research Council, says of Columbus, “He did do some things that weren’t right but his motives overall were, number one, to get gold to free Jerusalem but secondly to share the Gospel.” Think about that for a moment. That makes Columbus, overall, a force for good in history, right? Columbus didn’t want the gold for himself but to finance another crusade. And, Cureton continues, Columbus “was very much motivated by his Christian faith, and I think that is what is behind this effort to wipe his name out from history.” So you see, everybody, the only reason I would ever criticize Columbus, according to this particular conservative group, is because I hate Jesus. If I really really really loved Jesus, I would rejoice in what Columbus did. Please oh please somebody confirm that you don’t have to love Columbus in order to be a Christian.

The conclusion I reach is that nobody, anywhere, should celebrate Columbus Day. It should not, of course, be forgotten. October 12, 1492 should not be forgotten any more than September 1, 1939, the beginning of the Nazi blitzkrieg.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Happy Columbus Day, Part 1.

In this set of two essays I explain why we should hate Christopher Columbus rather than revere him, and why the celebration of Columbus Day is an insult to all human decency.

First, about Columbus. I have used William Least Heat-Moon’s book Columbus in the Americas as the immediate source of this information, but have confirmed much of it elsewhere. Christopher Columbus made the first European contact with Native Americans on October 12, 1492. It was, from the very start, genocide. Here are the reasons.

Columbus’ deep motives. Christopher Columbus seemed fascinated by his first encounter with what he insisted all his life was India. It seemed like a Garden of Eden to him, and he wrote glowingly about the sweetness of the flowers, which is something that single-minded conquistadors do not generally do. He also admired the Tainos, the Natives who lived in the vicinity of his first landfall. He marveled at their friendliness and their willingness to give him gifts, which further enhanced the image of a Garden of Eden. This does not sound like the writings of a man whose immediate thought was to kill them. He also admired some of their technology, most notably hammocks and canoes (the latter word coming from the Taino language). Perhaps most significantly, the Tainos showed great empathy and energy when they helped Columbus and his men gather up the wreckage of the Santa Maria to use for constructing the first European city in the New World, La Navidad.

But, right from the start, Columbus did have the subjugation of the Tainos in mind. From his very first encounter with them, he wrote that they would make good servants for the Spaniards, and he speculated that fifty armed Spaniards could easily conquer them. Therefore he immediately began thinking of them as resources, not persons. And it was not merely the gold and servitude that they could provide to the Spaniards that fascinated Columbus. He noted glowingly that most of the women were entirely naked. Historians concede that, were it not for Tainos sharing their food, all the Spaniards would have starved. Columbus noted, “They love their neighbors as themselves,” but rather than reflecting on how much more Christian the Taino behavior was than the behavior of the Spaniards, he seems to have considered this evidence that they were ripe for easy enslavement.

And while Columbus himself apparently did not go around raping and pillaging, he was certainly complicit in these actions. One of his men was a childhood friend, Michele de Cuneo, whom Columbus allowed to capture a Native woman. Apparently she was Carib, rather than a compliant Taino, and she screamed and scratched when de Cuneo tried to rape her in his room. De Cuneo beat her with ropes until she complied. Once she complied, she might have thought that she could get more resources from de Cuneo by pleasing him, and, in de Cuneo’s words from a letter he wrote home, “She seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.”

Was Columbus’ motivation to establish a colony for Spain? No, it could not have been. Even with his fourth and final voyage, there was no pre-planning for agriculture. A few colonists came, but the people were overwhelmingly men who wanted gold and slaves. The cities that Columbus and his men established were called “trading posts” precisely because of this objective. The entire motivation was rapine and plunder. Colonization came later, after the Natives were slaughtered and, for some tribes, sent into extinction.

Columbus’ actions. While Columbus seems to have made sincere efforts on his first voyage to create goodwill and cooperation with the Natives, his motivation seems to have entirely disappeared by his second voyage. He used war dogs to kill resistant Tainos, and captured as many Tainos as he could. He sent 500 Tainos to the Seville slave market under cramped fetid conditions that most people associate only with the African slave trade. He gave another 500 Tainos to his men for whatever use they desired to make of them. And he allowed about 500 to flee into the mountains.

And Columbus was extremely brutal in his punishments. A Native caught pilfering could have his ears cut off or be beheaded. But the most horrifying example of Columbus’ cruelty is the story I am about to relate. If you have a sensitive stomach, stop reading now. As a matter of fact, if you have a sensitive stomach, you have no business learning anything at all about the realities of history. You should just spend your time fantasizing about what a blessing the whites have been to the rest of the world.

Columbus required each Taino male over 13 years of age to bring in a hawk’s-bell volume of gold each three months. Those who failed to do so had one of their hands cut off.

Think about that. Columbus must have intended this as torture and terrorism. Cutting a man’s hand off will not make him better able to gather gold. You would have to be fucking stupid to believe that. Columbus was not stupid. He knew what he was doing. I can only conclude that Columbus, perhaps slightly less so than his men, got a sensual thrill out of torturing Natives.

The net result of Columbus’ direct and indirect actions was, according to his son Ferdinand, that a Spaniard could go anywhere on Hispaniola that he desired and take all the food and women he wanted, without fear of danger. And the effect on the population of Natives was predictable, not only because Spaniards killed them but because the natives killed themselves out of despair. The basic food of these Natives was cassava, which has to be processed to remove bitter poison. Many Natives drank the poison rather than to become slaves. Also, in one case on a later voyage, when Natives were locked into a slave hold on a ship, they found ropes and hung themselves, even though there was not enough headroom to do this: they had to hold up their knees while the ropes suffocated them. Here are the population figures for Natives on Hispaniola:

                        1492                300,000
                        1496                200,000
                        1508                60,000
                        1548                500
                        Before 1600    Extinct

Columbus’ binary classification. Columbus classified everyone into two categories: the Europeans, whom God was blessing, and the “Indians,” whom God was delivering into the hands of Europeans. He noted, but gave no importance to, the differences among tribes.

The main distinction Columbus saw right away was between Tainos and Caribs. The Caribs were cannibals who preyed upon the Tainos. The Caribs would capture Taino women and children. They would caponize the boys (cutting off their genitals) so that they would grow up tender. But they would impregnate the women in order to produce the ultimate Carib delicacy: roast baby. In at least one instance, Columbus rescued Tainos from Carib captivity. Once his men captured a naked Taino woman, but Columbus ordered her sent back (clothed) to her tribe as an act of goodwill. (The fact that the Caribs were evil people does not make their enslavement and eradication justified.) Native Americans had as much diversity as Europeans. But in the end Columbus, despite his initial admiration of the Tainos, treated all natives the same; it was Taino captives whom he sent to the Seville slave market.

Spain’s motives. Even though Columbus appeared to have a streak of decency, Spain did not. Ferdinand and Isabella barely gave Columbus enough resources to launch his first voyage, because they were skeptical of his prospects. But they richly endowed his second voyage with lots of ships and resources. The reason was that Columbus had proven to them that “India” was a promising source of gold and slaves. There appears to have been very few resources dedicated to starting up an agricultural economy and a self-sustaining Spanish colony. The Spanish cities, of which only Santo Domingo continues to exist, were meant as places for gathering slaves and gold. Had it been otherwise, the ships of the second voyage would have been provisioned differently. The main nonhuman animals on the ships were war dogs, which the Spaniards could unleash on Natives to kill them. Incidentally, the money to fund the second voyage came from resources taken from the recently-expelled Jews.

It didn’t take long for the Natives to resist. Before returning to Spain on his first voyage, Columbus established La Navidad. When he returned he found it had been destroyed. He discovered the reason for it: the Spaniards had raided Taino villages and stolen women as sexual slaves; each Spaniard had four or five sex slaves.

Another aspect of the Columbus story that is interesting to scientists is that Columbus used a method often called “cherry-picking” to prove that he had, indeed, reached Asia. He ignored all contrary evidence. And he grabbed at any shred of evidence that could be construed to prove he was in Asia. He assumed that one Taino place name was a variant of Mangi, a province in China. And when he heard of a tribe whose leader wore a white tunic, he assumed this man was a descendant of Prester John. But Columbus went beyond this. He forced all his men to sign a deposition stating that they were, in fact, in Asia; and the punishment for a man saying that they were not in Asia was that his tongue would be cut out. This was Columbus’ scientific method of determining truth.

Next entry: how conservatives sanitize and sanctify Columbus.