Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Psychological Differences between Religious and Non-Religious People

There appear to be psychological differences between liberals and conservatives—not in the sense of brain dysfunction, but in the sense of fundamental psychological values. That is, neither liberals nor conservatives arrive at their beliefs completely by reason. They base their morals on the way their psychological values incline them to see the world. We all knew this, but a 2014 article in Science (“Morality in Everyday Life,” by Wilhelm Hoffman, Daniel C. Wisneski, Mark J. Brandt, and Linda J. Skitka; Science 345: 1340-1343) confirm this and give us specific examples of what these values are, based on a study of 1,252 people, from whom they received 13,240 responses.

The psychological differences between liberals and conservatives was not the main purpose of the study. It was to study how the moral or immoral behavior of other people can affect your moral or immoral behavior. That is, is there a “moral contagion” in which one good deed catalyzes another? Believe it or not, you can actually study morality and immorality scientifically. Does committing moral deeds make you feel better about yourself? Does committing immoral deeds make you feel worse about yourself? And, finally, are religious people more likely than non-religious people to be moral?

Previous studies of moral values, the authors said, have been based on what they call “moral vignettes.” Subjects are interviewed by psychologists, who tell them a story with a moral dilemma and ask them what they would do. But this is highly unrealistic. What I think I might do, when I am sitting in a chair in a psychology lab, might be very different from what I would actually do. “...virtually no research has taken morality science out of these artificial settings and directly asked people about whether and how they think about morality and immorality in the course of their everyday lived experience.” That is, this study investigated the things that actually happened each day in people’s lives.

The results were unsurprising but, apparently, have not been tabulated previously. People are happier when they are the recipients of other people’s moral acts (such as care and empathy) than when they experience other people’s immoral acts; but their sense of purpose was more strongly affected by what they did rather than by what they experienced, whether positive or negative.

What about moral contagion? Yes and no. People who experienced the moral kindness of others were more likely to themselves commit a moral act of kindness. On the other hand, after people committed moral acts, they were then more likely to do something immoral, feeling that, by having done something good earlier in the day, they deserved the right to be a little immoral.

What does this have to do with evolution? Evolution has conferred upon the human brain the instincts for both good and bad behavior. Studies such as this one illustrate how both kinds of behavior are kept alive in human populations.

The other results of this study were no less interesting. Religious people were no more or less likely to commit moral acts. The only discernible difference was that religious people tended to feel more disgust at their own immoral acts (or to say that they did). The authors conclude, “religious and nonreligious people commit comparable moral and immoral deeds with comparable frequency.” So much for religion making people better.

The authors of the study concluded, “A closer, ecologically valid look at how morality unfolds in people’s natural environments may inspire new models and theories about what it means to lead the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ life.” They left it to the rest of us to apply their conclusions to the world around us.

The differences between liberals and conservatives was even more interesting. But that is the topic of the next essay.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Earth First: No Wonder Students Forget Biology

Nearly every biology textbook and course begin with molecules, then cells, and work their way up through genetics to organisms, then if there is time a brief look at ecology and evolution, followed by a big section on human anatomy and physiology. If a student wants to know the relevance and importance of something, they quickly learn by the end of the first week to shut up and memorize molecules.

There have been some exceptions. Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine wrote a Prentice-Hall biology textbook in the 1990s that began with ecology, and worked its way down to cells and molecules. There is a 2010 edition of the high school version of book still available on Amazon. The college version has, as far as I can tell, gone extinct, because college biology teachers didn’t learn biology that way and do not want to teach it that way.

I also had a textbook contract for a while, and I wrote the book (and received part of a nice advance), but the book never went into production. I used a wholly original approach. I began and ended with ecology. The first chapter (after an introduction about what science is) was about the flow of energy from the sun, through the food chains, and into outer space. The second chapter was about the cycling of nutrients through the food chains. But, you may ask, how can students learn about these things without first learning about molecules and cells? Well, you don’t have to know much about molecules and cells in order to understand food chains. Then, starting with the third chapter, I worked up from cells to organisms and then ended with communities and ecosystems. That is, I began with autecology and ended with synecology. For synecology, you do have to know a lot about organisms, but for autecology, all you have to know is that plants eat sunshine and hawks eat little animals and decomposers eat everything after it dies.

By beginning and ending with ecology, I placed humans in the context of the Earth. Earth first. There was no escaping it. Ecology could not be skipped.

I did some other original things also. The anatomy and physiology chapters were built around certain ideas, such as exchange of molecules coming in and going out of the organism; integration of processes within the body; and response to environment. Both plants and animals have to do all of these things, but in different ways. Therefore, each chapter had both plant and animal anatomy and physiology. In this way I could explain how, in many ways, an animal is an inside-out plant.

At first, the publisher signed me up and was excited about how different my approach was. Then one of the editors did a chapter-by-chapter lineup of my book with other texts and said, “Um, your chapters don’t line up with theirs.” Of course, that was kind of the point, I thought.

In general, the reviewers were positive about the book. They probably would not have been positive enough, however, to change their whole class and lab schedule to fit in with it. My book would probably have gone the way of the worthy efforts of Miller and Levine. Alas, for marketing reasons, the publisher probably made the right decision to just pay me off and not go into production.

Gordon Orians also took an original approach in his biology textbook. It had three parts: Time, energy, and information. He built the whole science of biology around these three organizing principles. He said, in a symposium I helped to organize back in 1993, that his book got no adoptions, “and I mean that literally.”

All of us maverick textbook writers, however, might be able to trace our roots back to the “BSCS Green Version” of High School Biology. (BSCS was the Biological Curriculum Study Committee.) There was also a Blue Version, which followed the “molecules to man” organization. The Green Version, however, began with placing the student out in nature and having him or her look around and think about what they saw. It began with a rabbit and a raspberry bush. Right there, you have all the ecological interactions, including the rabbit hiding from predators under the bush. Before the end of the first chapter, the student’s eyes were opened to the wonder of the world. Well, that’s the way it worked for me, when I read that chapter back in high school.

“Rabbits. They keep turning up, in nursery tales and comic strips, in candy shops and cabbage patches....and we know about raspberries...about the bushes along the roadside, which tear skirts and trousers and make a fine place for rabbits to hide.” Page one! And by page two the concepts of producers and consumers, and ecological balance, are introduced.

Modern biology textbooks are thick with condensed information. The textbook we use in general biology at my university is "short," a MERE 620 pages not counting glossary and index. But it is short because the information is crammed in, not because it is readable. My students don’t read them. I don’t read them. We use an occasional diagram, such as the genetic code. The only thing we use is the online, computer-graded assignments. If I had begun science with one of those books, instead of a rabbit and a raspberry bush, I might not have become a scientist at all.

This is Stan Rice, reporting to you from the graveyard where I sit with Miller, Levine, Orians, and BSCS.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Welcome Back to the Cold War

Today, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has the capability to destroy the United States, not just because of its nuclear weapons but because of enhanced delivery systems. The Cold War has returned. Those of you who were born after about 1990 have grown up in a world in which mutual assured destruction has always been a possibility but nobody ever thought about it much. The reason for this was because the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia focused more on its own economic development than on wanting to destroy America. Also, at that time, we had a president who was a moderate and thoughtful Republican (George H. W. Bush). But now, narcissistic egomaniacs are in control of both America (Donald Trump) and Russia (Vlad).

I grew up with the threat of nuclear destruction of the world. It didn’t happen. While it is unlikely to happen now or ever, the imminent possibility has returned. All that either Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin have to do is have a conniption fit and press the button.

Actually, it is not quite that simple. Only the president can authorize a nuclear strike. He broadcasts an encoded message to missile crews (the message, conveniently enough, is about as long as a tweet, Trump’s beloved form of communication). After that point, there is probably no chance to stop total nuclear annihilation. The five missile crews open safes to verify that the launch code sent by the president matches the one in the safe, to make sure that the order is not from a hacker. According to this report the five crews have to turn their keys at the same time. Then the report says, “There are five different keys, but only two need to be turned to launch the missiles.” Therefore, the president cannot launch a nuclear strike if everyone thinks he is crazy. But Trump has enough people who believe everything he says that it is not at all unthinkable for two keys to be turned to release The End of the World. And the Russian chain of command is even more mindlessly worshipful of Vlad than the American chain of command is of The Donald.

Evolution has given us brains that respond to imminent threat with quick and thoughtless attack. Not until the 1950s was it possible for such instinctual reactions to endanger the entire planet. For a few brief years, from 1990 until March 1, 2018, it remained possible but very unlikely. Now we are back to the panic mode. Living in a constant panic mode can erode your health. But in the evolutionary past, nobody lived long enough for this to be a problem.

We owe a big thanks to Trump and Putin for bringing the world back to the point in which the end of the world could begin at any moment.