Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Natural Superiority of Women

I have never actually read the book by this title, edited by the famous twentieth-century sociologist Ashley Montagu, but I am going to attempt an evolutionary scientific defense of an idea that may not have even been widely circulating when Montagu published his volume. And that is: neoteny.

Neoteny, broadly defined, is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. We have all noticed that juvenile animals differ from adult animals in consistent and very noticeable ways. Juvenile animals have big heads and big eyes and are generally smoother than adult animals. While it is difficult to define an exact list of neotenous characteristics, we all know them: the way puppies and kittens and children are different from dogs, cats, and adult humans.

These are precisely the ways in which humans differ from the other apes. Human and chimp babies look more alike than human and chimp adults. As humans grow, our heads (and brains) continue to grow for a much longer time than is the case in chimps. Baby chimps even have relatively flat faces, like humans, rather than the sloping faces of adult chimps. Baby chimps are pretty hairy, like adult chimps, but the relative hairlessness of humans (in which we have as many hairs as chimps, but many of them do not develop) can be considered not just a neotenous but a fetal characteristic that we maintain into adulthood. In addition to this, adult humans usually retain into adulthood the juvenile playfulness and creativity of children. We humans consider ourselves superior to chimps because of our neotenous characteristics.

And these are also some of the ways in which women differ from men. While it cannot easily be demonstrated that women have bigger brains (relative to body size) or are more creative than men, they have many juvenile characteristics such as relative hairlessness and smoothness. The smoothness comes from having more subcutaneous fat than men. Because women make a bigger physical investment into each child than do men, women think more about the future prosperity of their children than do men. Because of this, I believe, women are more likely to find peaceful and constructive solutions to problems than are men, whose first reaction is often violence. I think the world would be a more peaceful and a fairer place if it were run by women.

There are, of course, exceptions, and I am making only a generalization from my own biased point of view. My experiences have convinced me that, in general, women are superior to men. Matter of fact, I don’t see what women see in men. But I’m glad you like us men. To my male friends, I merely say that I’m not referring to you personally.

Yes, women are babes, and that’s why they are superior. Women are superior to men for some of the same reasons that humans are superior to chimps. I am defining superior, of course, from a human-centered viewpoint; all of you crawdads out there, and Klingons, forgive me, but the human viewpoint is the only one I can have.

Someone asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg how many women are enough in the Supreme Court. She said nine. She then explained that when the Court consisted of nine men, nobody thought it strange, but a nine-woman Supreme Court would raise at least a little bit of consternation. Nevertheless, I think that we need to have more input from women in governing our countries and our corporations (and our universities).

It can work. I am a member of the Cherokee tribe, and our traditional government (before about 1800) had women as well as men in leadership councils. Of course women made important decisions in times of peace, but there were a few women, such as my sixth great grandmother Nanyehi, who made important contributions in times of war also. When Attakullakulla, Nanyehi’s uncle, visited England in 1830, he met with the King and Parliament. One of his reactions was, where are the women? How can you ignore the input of half of the population? He might have been more pleased had he met Queen Elizabeth I, but the all-male Parliament would still not have met with his approval. I am squarely with Attakullakulla, and with Nanyehi, on this one. Of course, eventually the Cherokee tribe was vanquished. About 1829, just before being dispossessed from its homeland, the Cherokee tribe adopted a white style of government, modeled after the United States, including restriction of suffrage and offices to men. So the pre-1800 woman-intensive Cherokee system did not work? The only reason it did not work is that the white people—that is, white men—had more guns.

Back in the 1970s, a pollster asked schoolchildren who the worst man and worst woman in history had been. The most common responses were Adolf Hitler and Anita Bryant. You kidding me? In case you don’t remember Anita Bryant, she got to be famous for making anti-gay statements. I am not here to attack or defend Anita Bryant (she is certainly no Hitler); but if she is the worst woman the kids could think of in all of history, that tells you something about the differences between men and women. Islamist jihadists are mostly men, plus some women who have been practically brainwashed by men.

Another famous Cherokee, Will Rogers, said he never met a man he didn’t like. Well, I could introduce him to a few. And a few women, too. But I have truly liked and admired nearly all of the women I have ever met, and most, but not nearly as many, of the men.

Here’s to women! May it be a good year for you!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Evolution of Imagination

One of the things that humans have more than any other animal, we think, is the ability to imagine. That is, while our brains are continually processing an ongoing stream of information from the real world, we are able to carry out a parallel process: to generate an imagined world with its own series of events. Eventually our ability to imagine a parallel world gave rise to art, music, and literature, first oral and then written. When I am writing, I feel as if I am in a heavenly realm. Creativity and imagination feel like supernatural gifts.

But, as with so many other human capacities, imagination probably had an extremely practical and immediate function when it first evolved. The people who were most successful in the game of both biological and cultural evolution were those who were ready for whatever happened: very little caught them by surprise, and they always had a backup plan to deal with events. And the only way to accomplish these two things was through imagination.

In primitive society, and today, you  could not and cannot assume that everyone who is acting nice really is nice. They might be concealing an imminent attack upon you. You may not have much of a factual basis for suspecting them of this, so you cannot actually do anything about it. But your imagination will give you an early warning of it, should it happen. Furthermore, you will already have a script worked out in your head about how to handle the attack, should it occur. And as a result, you can probably handle it more calmly, rather than being outraged by shock.

There is very little cost to using your imagination in this way. Of course you cannot imagine every possible attack, but you can imagine many. If you spend too much time imagining things that people might do to you, you will be bogged down in paranoia, sort of like a computer that is using most of its working memory for virus checks. As with anything else you do, maintaining a suspicious imagination is a matter of moderation. If it subtracts from your happiness, you are doing it too much. If you imagine the same scenario over and over (as I sometimes do, against my own better judgment), you are doing it too much.

A lot of fiction serves the function of anticipating possible difficulties before they actually happen. The “nightmare future” stories and novels, especially those that depict a future that is just a little different from the present, help us to be less surprised at the actions of powerful evil people, and maybe take preventive measures. Nightmare future novels can be very grim, but a good writer can use humor in a way to make you think without making you depressed. That is, imagining hopeless scenarios can be very unhealthy.

The main conclusion of the 9-11 Commission, which investigated the September 11, 2001 attacks, was that we had a failure of the imagination. We simply did not use our imaginations enough to conceive of someone using a hijacked jet as a weapon. This is what can happen if we do not imagine the perils of the future.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Another trove of fossils in Oklahoma

Creationists have to close their eyes very, very tightly and keep saying “Na na na I can’t hear you” when they encounter evidence, which surrounds them, of evolution. One of the places of which this is most true is Oklahoma. Oklahoma has lots of fossils that demonstrate the old age of the Earth, and is also one of the hotbeds of creationism. Oklahoma creationists are, therefore, some of the people who are most skillful at selectively ignoring whatever they do not want to see.

Yesterday I took a hike with Nature Conservancy members at Nickel Preserve, near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. If you do not know about this wonderful organization, please follow the link provided. We climbed a very steep slope with loose soil to some limestone bluffs, from which we could look out over the bottomland flats and the forested hills. I felt like one of my Cherokee ancestors (Tahlequah has been the capital of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma since 1839) who thought nothing of running up and down hills in search of game. Near the bluffs, but not elsewhere in the forest, there were lots of sugar maples, which are abundant in the eastern deciduous forests but in Oklahoma are mainly found near cliffs.

Certain layers of the limestone had crinoid fossils. Crinoids are echinoderms (related to starfish) that like inside of limestone stalks that they create. The stalks look superficially like a stack of coins.

Some of the limestone layers were crammed with the fossils.

But other layers were not. In this photo, you can see that the crinoid fossils are restricted to one narrow layer.

There were just a few lampshell fossils:

The reason that some layers had lots of fossils and others did not was probably that the fossiliferous layers are remnants of shallow water environments, while the other layers are remnants of sediments deposited farther from shore. Shallow water, permeated by sunlight, often has more and larger sessile organisms, because there is more food at the base of the food chain, than in deeper, darker waters. These limestone layers are a record of changes in sea level over the course of many thousands of years. The reason that the fossil deposits are almost entirely crinoids in this location, and almost entirely mollusks in other locations, in Oklahoma, may be due to the advantage of numbers. Once crinoids are abundant, their massive reproduction keeps mollusks from literally being able to gain a foothold; and vice versa. This is one reason why crinoids and nearly every other kind of sessile invertebrate are rare today in mussel beds.

The point is that these fossils could not possibly represent the random sloshings of Noachian flood waters. If all of these layers were deposited during a single Flood of Noah, why do some layers have fossils and others do not, and why are the fossils not a random selection of animals that lived on the Earth the day that Noah went into the Ark and closed the door? Creationists have no explanation whatsoever for why the Flood waters would have sorted out fossils into an evolutionary order.

A cache is where you hide a lot of things (from French cacher, to hide); a trove is where you find a lot of things (from French trouver, to find). The crinoid cliffs northeast of Tahlequah, Oklahoma is definitely a trove of evidence, one which tells us about the past history of the Earth.

Friday, December 11, 2015

New Video

Find out why on YouTube Darwin's favorite magazine is the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report! What you don't know about evolution can kill you!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Was Moses a Scientist?

Turn the clock back to 1976. I was a creationist student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Our little creationist group, at that time called Creation Society of Santa Barbara (later Students for Origins Research) had organized a debate, which, as it happened drew a crowd that nearly filled Campbell Hall, the major event center at the university. On the creationist side were Henry Morris and Duane Gish, both now deceased, and who remain the iconic figures of modern young-earth creationism. On the evolution side were geologist Preston Cloud and cellular biologist (later a scholar of Judaism) Aharon Gibor, both on the UCSB faculty.

It is nearly impossible for any such debate to yield any insights. First of all, it converts a continuum of belief into two armed camps. The creationist side considers itself the sole representative of religious belief; therefore, if there is anything that evolution cannot explain, it proves that their 6000-year version of Earth history must be right.  Furthermore, in such a debate, a creationist can make a large number of wrong statements, which an evolutionist could not possibly set right in an equivalent amount of time. Would Darwin debate? The guy who pretends to be Darwin says, no way!

The 1976 UCSB debate was no exception. Of course, I thought the creationist side won. But I remember a couple of statements Aharon Gibor made which, in retrospect, I understand to be very wise. One statement was that there are hundreds of creation accounts in the world; which one are we supposed to believe? (Maybe the Yoruba one, which I described in the previous post?) Debunking evolution does not lead straight to fundamentalist Christian creationism.

But his second statement really made me think, even at the time, when I was not in a habit of really thinking about this issue. He said that Moses was a sort of ancient society’s version of a scientist. When he saw the burning bush, he turned aside to see what it was. He did not simply assume what it was, but wanted to investigate. This is what science is about. Of course, Moses was a very religious man. But religious people can be inquisitive and seek data to test their beliefs. This describes many religious people today, but does not describe fundamentalists.

Just this morning I received a term paper in my Evolution course. I quickly determined that it was plagiarized. I have, in my nine years of teaching evolution, received two creationist term papers; both were plagiarized. The first one, from a Christian fundamentalist student, was bought from a term paper website for $15.95. The second one, which I just received, was reworded from the website of the Muslim creationist website run by the flamboyant Adnan Oktar, who goes by Harun Yahya. On this paper I noted that it was OK to disagree with me but not to plagiarize.

I conclude from these experiences that creationists do not reach their conclusions by investigating the world but by repeating what their leaders say. This is as true for Muslim creationists as for Christian ones. For those of you who are religious, might I pass on Aharon Gibor’s suggestion: be like Moses, and turn aside to see the evidence before you proclaim your conclusions.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Creation Story from the Yoruba People

When I teach evolution, I have a brief section about evolution and creation. It is a science course and I do not spend a lot of time on this. One of the things I do in this course is to introduce the students to versions of creation from outside Christianity, such as the new Native American creationism espoused by Vine Deloria Jr. and the Muslim creationism of Harun Yahya. But this semester, I had two students from Africa. One of them told me about the creation stories of her people, the Yoruba. I would like to present the account that she gave to us, the ÌTÀN ÌSÈDÁ ÃYÉ.

“In the beginning of the world, there was nothing except a ball of water. And Olódùmãrè (the Almighty) sent Õdùduwà to Òbìrí Ãyé (the round Earth) to plant the earth. Õdùduwà left heaven with a horn full of sand and a chicken. He poured (planted) the sand on the surface of water, so that he can step on a ground. He then placed the chicken on the ground. The chicken helped spread the sand all over. The areas where the chicken was able to reach are the land we have today. Õdùduwà saw to it that the surface of the earth was covered part land and water so that there is a form. And several years passed by………………..

“Meanwhile, Sokoti (the blacksmith of heaven) has been assigned to mold every form of creature he could imagine to fill the formed earth. Sokoti used his artistic ability to mold different kinds of creatures with different colors and skins. Unfortunately, Sokoti was a drunkard. This made it hard for him to get his job done right. One day in his drunken state, he molded different forms of creatures and sent them to earth without a quality test of assurance. These creatures were the monkeys, baboons, chimps, and gorillas.

“On one of his sober days, Sokoti framed out a fine creature and made different forms it in various colors and diversity with sand, clay, and mud. Some he fashioned them with large breasts, and left some bare. He created them such that they were like a puzzle that could fit into each other. These creatures were the most perfect of all he had made. He sent them into the world and they were called Eniyan (humans).

“After few years, there was conflict between the apes and humans. They couldn’t live together in harmony. The apes were rejected and ignored by humans. They decided to end this conflict by consulting with each other. They chose a representative who will go to Olódùmãrè on their behalf. Olódùmãrè gave instructions that they should congregate at the mountain in three days time, where he would prepare a potion of oil in a giant basin. They are to rub their skin with this oil to become human. The apes were so excited that they drank, danced and forgot what day it was. By the time they remembered, the oil had almost dried up. They managed to rub their faces, hands, and feet with the remaining oil but it wasn’t enough. Some rub their butts and chests against the basin, but still not enough. This is why apes have faces, hands, butts, and feet that are almost bare.”

This story illustrates two things. First, it shows that there are many creation accounts. Christian creationists assume that disproving evolution would prove their version of Christianity. Second, it shows how a supposed harmony between creation and evolution can be forced, no matter what kind of creationism it is. It can be Christian creationism, as when generations of religious scientists have tried to harmonize Genesis and geology. But it can also be done with the Yoruba account. As my student explained, the primordial Earth was mostly water (the continents arose later); this is the Òbìrí Ãyé of the legend. The adiye chicken could have been a tyrannosaur or an archaeopteryx. It took time for Sokoti to perfect the design of the human, just as it took evolution a long time to produce us. Sokoti used different materials, such as sand or clay, of different textures and colors to produce different species, and different human races, just as evolution has produced diversity. And Sokoti, like sexual selection, produced genders of humans who fit together like puzzle pieces. See? The Yoruba legend fits together with modern science!

Attempts to reconcile religion and science, from Augustine to Francis Collins in the western world, and all over the world, is an exercise in creativity rather than a discovery of truth.

I appreciate the contribution that my student made to our class, and I think no one in the class (except the other Yoruba student) had experienced anything like it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bible Faith and Bible Understanding

This fall, I administered a questionnaire (as per guidelines of our Institutional Research Board) to my classes. I have tabulated the results from my evolution class. I work at a small regional university in the jewel at the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt. This year, I kept two groups of questionnaires separate: those who accept the Bible as a, or the, holy book, and those who do not.

You probably expect that the class had a lot of creationists. But, when you think about it, you realize that this is unlikely to be the case, since the class is an elective and creationists tend to stay away from it. Even within this class, I have noticed that one student who expressed a distaste for the subject (maybe he thought it would be an easy A) signs his name on the attendance sheet and leaves (and seems to think I don’t notice). Not only does this suggest that he does not want to deal with the evidence, but he is being dishonest by taking credit for attending a class when he was not there after the first minute. On the other hand, I have had some very smart and honest creationists in the class over the years. Still, one should not be surprised at the makeup of the class. Of those who accept the Bible as holy, about 75 percent are theistic evolutionists (who believe God created the world through the process of evolution). Only one respondent identified him or herself as a young-earth creationist. Of the non-believers, three of five said evolution was responsible for the world being the way it is. My class is hardly polarized at the extremes; most people are somewhere in the middle.

First, those who consider the Bible to be a, or the, holy text. Eighty-two percent said that they know a lot about the Bible, and 45 percent said they had read the entire Bible at least once. Sounds like these people should know their religion, at least. However, they did not do so well on the general questions about Biblical knowledge. These questions included:

  • Who David was, or who Abram was
  • How many tribes of Israel there were, or how many plagues of Egypt there were
  • About how many books are in the Bible
  • That the prophets of the Old Testament called for the rich to stop oppressing the poor
  • That the Old Testament prohibits eating shellfish

I also included, in the general Bible questions, a couple that should have been very easy to answer: about whether the Catholic and Protestant Bibles have the same books, and whether the Bible was originally written in English. This last questions sounds really strange, and in fact all respondents knew the Bible was not originally written in English, but there is a church right outside of town that considers the King James Bible to be the inspired Bible—not the earlier versions.

I also asked some specific questions that are very interesting and relevant to modern issues.

  • The Old Testament commands agricultural land be left fallow every seven years, a practice known as the “Sabbath of the fields.” That is, the Old Testament commands sustainable agriculture.
  • The Old Testament commands that all debts be forgiven and all land returned to its original owners every fifty years (a practice known as Jubilee). If this command were really carried out, it would mean the collapse of the capitalist system. Can you imagine Bank of America doing this? Not only will they not forgive debts, but they make sneaky policy changes to trick customers into having even more debt. Thanks, Moses.
  • The Old Testament permitted slavery and it actually says, regarding the slave-owner, “The slave is his money.” Guess what: the Confederates (who still fly their flags proudly in Oklahoma) believed that black slaves were not people, but property. Thanks, Abraham Lincoln.
  • Most religious people consider abortion to be murder. Inconveniently, the Old Testament says that if a man injures a woman such that it causes a miscarriage, this is not treated as a murder but as what we would call a misdemeanor, requiring monetary restitution.
  • The Old Testament specifies certain rights that foreigners residing within Israel have; it does not prohibit foreigners from living in Israel.

Second, the students who do not consider the Bible to be a holy text. Two-thirds of them said they know a lot about the Bible. And 38 percent of them said they had read the Bible at least once. Some of these, at least, were raised in a religious tradition and then left it.

This chart summarizes the differences between the Bible-believers and the non-believers, first in terms of general knowledge then knowledge of the specific questions.

Percent correct responses

General knowledge: mean
General knowledge: range
Sabbath of the fields
OT permits slavery
Killing a fetus is not murder
OT does not prohibit aliens

These results indicate that (if these students represent the general population) the non-believers know just as much about the Bible as the believers do. In fact, when it comes to Bible passages that are relevant to modern issues such as agriculture, economics, slavery, abortion, and refugees, the non-believers know more about the Bible than the believers do, sometimes by a wide margin.

The tentative conclusions I draw are the following:

  • Believers believe the Bible but are no more likely to know what it says than non-believers, in terms of general Biblical knowledge that is not directly relevant to modern issues.
  • Believers know less than non-believers about those parts of the Bible that address modern issues. This may be because their preachers actually feed them misinformation, proclaiming that the Bible champions capitalism and prohibits aliens from living in God’s land (which many of them consider to be the United States). That is, I suspect that preachers have actively led their followers to believe more wrong things about the Bible than do non-believers. Conversely, non-believers are more likely to know things about the Bible that are embarrassing to modern believers.

My main recommendation, from these responses, is this. If you base your political and scientific opinions upon the Bible, you should read it first.