Monday, December 27, 2010

Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part Two. Thank God for Jupiter?

In a previous entry, I introduced the Rare Earth hypothesis of Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, which states that Earth-like planets on which complex life could have evolved are very rare in the universe. One reason was that Earth revolves around a stable star, the Sun.
Ward and Brownlee also point out that the Earth resides in a very lucky neighborhood of the Solar System. The two sources of luck are Jupiter and the Moon. First, consider Jupiter.

When the Solar System first formed, it was a disc of small asteroids. Many of these asteroids ran into each other and were crushed into planets by their own gravity. These planets continued to mop up asteroids until about 3.9 billion years ago. After that time, few asteroids remained that could crash into the planets. Most of the craters on the Moon (which, as large as some planets, also helped to clear away asteroids) are older than 3.9 billion years. The Moon, which has no wind or weather, has preserved an intact sample of the asteroid impacts that imperiled the early Solar System.

Another important component of the Solar System is comets. There are billions of these dirty balls of ice that orbit the sun just beyond the outer edge of the Solar System. Most of them remain at the edge of the Solar System, but some of them have very elliptical orbits, which bring them close to the sun. They whip around the Sun like a slingshot, and fly back out into the outer edges of the Solar System. While comets are near the sun, solar radiation vaporizes some of the water, creating the comet’s “tail” that everyone recognizes. Before 3.9 billion years ago, there were also a lot of comets, but they are now, like asteroids, comparatively rare.

The principal reason that asteroids and comets now only rarely fall from the sky is the planet Jupiter. Jupiter is so massive, and has such a powerful gravitational field, that it has sucked up most of the asteroids in the inner solar system, except for those in the asteroid belt, whose orbits have been stabilized by that same Jovian gravitation. Any asteroid or comet that happens to come within several million miles of Jupiter is drawn inevitably into its gaseous embrace. This is exactly what happened to the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994. After whipping around the Sun and heading back into the outer reaches of the solar system, this comet slipped too close to Jupiter, whose gravity fractured it into pieces. Each piece created a huge flare of radiation as it fell into Jupiter’s dense atmosphere, and each of the black spots that remained visible for a few weeks was similar in size to the Earth. Therefore Jupiter continues to clear away asteroids and comets from the Solar System. Without Jupiter, asteroids and comets might be hitting Earth so frequently that life would not have a chance to exist for very long.

And then there is Earth’s closest neighbor, the Moon. Most planets have moons, but Earth is the only planet in the Solar System with a moon so large in relation to it. Mars has two tiny moons, Deimos and Phobos, named after the two horses of the war god’s chariot. Jupiter and Saturn have moons larger than ours, but tiny in relation to the planetary masses. Our Moon is large enough and just far enough away to profoundly influence our planet without severely disrupting it. Everyone knows that the tug of the Moon causes the tides. Were it not for tides, there would be no intertidal zone, the only home of thousands of species of organisms. But tides may be of relatively little importance to the planet as a whole, even though they are important to barnacles. The major effect of the Moon on Earth, crucial to the survival of life as a whole, is to stabilize its movement.

As planets revolve around their suns, they rotate on their axes. These rotational axes wobble, pointing in different directions at different times. Any planet with a large amount of wobbling would have unstable climatic zones, since sometimes the equatorial zone and sometimes the polar zones would directly face the sun. The part of a planet directly facing its sun will receive the most intense radiation and be warmest. How could tropical, temperate, and polar plants and animals evolve, if the climates of those zones are extremely variable? This appears to have happened with Earth’s less fortunate little brother, Mars. Earth, however, has not tilted more than about 20 degrees from the plane of its revolution. Even the little bit of wobbling that the Earth does experience has been enough to cause about twenty Ice Ages during the last two million years of Earth history. We have the Moon to thank for the relative stability of Earth’s movements.

Earth is mighty lucky to have neighbors like Jupiter and the Moon. Otherwise, complex life might never have evolved here.

I adapted this essay from part of chapter 1 of my forthcoming book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-aged, Stressed-out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books.

Also do not forget the new YouTube channel that I announced in the previous post (see below).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Announcing a new YouTube channel

I have started a new channel on YouTube, called The Darwin Channel. You can search for it under my YouTube name, StanEvolve. I have posted three video clips, and more are coming. The first three are:

Darwin meets a monkey
Darwin eats a banana
Charles Darwin and natural law

Friday, December 17, 2010

Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part One. Thank Our Lucky Star

Much of the story of life on planet Earth has been due simply to luck. This is particularly true of the physical environment which has allowed evolution to produce such a diversity of species.

One day in 1950 over lunch with his scientific colleagues, physicist Enrico Fermi heard someone speculate about how many advanced civilizations there must be out in space. Fermi quipped, “So, where are they?” He meant that if there were many advanced civilizations, some of them must be more advanced than we are, and must have invented space travel—and at least some of them should have contacted us by now. This has come to be known as “Fermi’s Paradox.” One answer to this paradox is that there are so few advanced civilizations in the universe that they have not found us yet and probably never will. According to this view, Earth-like planets might be very rare. Very few planets have been as lucky as Earth. According to the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” of planetary scientists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, we can begin by thanking our lucky star, the Sun.

First, the Sun is a calm and stable star. Many stars fluctuate wildly in their energy output. Such pulsations in energy may prevent life from ever getting started on any planets that revolve around variable stars. In contrast, the Sun has been stable for billions of years. Not perfectly stable, of course. The Sun has had occasional “coronal mass ejections,” in which it propels energy and particles from its outer layer out into the Solar System. One of these mass ejections, on September 1, 1859, was strong enough that it shut down the telegraph systems in the United States and Europe and caused auroras to occur in the skies of even tropical regions. The Sun also has an 11-year sunspot cycle. These variations, however, have not had much effect on Earth. Coronal ejections have not been known to have ever harmed life on Earth (no organisms were harmed when the telegraphs shut down), and solar intensity shifts by only 0.1 percent during the sunspot cycle. The Sun has, in fact, changed its energy output over the billions of years of its existence. It has increased the intensity of its radiation by about 30 percent during that time—but it has done so very gradually.

Second, the Sun is an isolated star. Many stars have partners, forming multiple-star systems—most commonly, binary systems in which two stars swing around each other like dancers. If the Sun were part of such a close family of stars, the other stars would prevent planets from having stable orbits, which might prevent the evolution of life. The Sun is also far away from stars that emit so much energy that they would disrupt or destroy life. For example, a supernova anywhere within a few dozen light years of Earth would wipe out all of life—but there have been no supernovae in the Sun’s neighborhood for at least several billion years. Moreover, stars in the centers of galaxies may be so close together that they would disrupt the revolution of one another’s planets, even if they are not part of multiple-star systems. But the Sun is on a swirling arm far from the center of the galaxy. If we were near the center of the galaxy, many stars would be so close to us that night would not be very dark, and those stars would yank and tug us around and disrupt the stability of our planet’s conditions.

Therefore, it appears that complex life would not have had time to evolve on planets that revolve around most stars. Earth is not just a special planet in our solar system, but in the universe. The story of evolution, as presented in this blog, might be something quite rare in the universe.

The foregoing was adapted from a portion of my upcoming book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-aged, Stressed-out World, soon to be released by Prometheus Books.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fiscal Responsibility in the Evolutionary World

The ongoing economic crisis has focused our attention on the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the federal government and of nearly all major corporations. They were the ones that caused the current financial crisis. The principal causes were the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy, and the war in Iraq. The war was sold to the American people as a great investment opportunity, by none other than Paul Wolfowitz who was later rewarded by being made president of the World Bank. First he predicted that it would cost almost nothing to invade and establish a government friendly to our interests; he famously said that the Iraqis would greet us with flowers. Second, he and others counted on oil revenues to pay for the war. But the government and corporations are blaming American citizens for it. For example (in the few remaining weeks before it became illegal) banks raised interest rates and minimum payments on credit accounts on which payments had never been missed.

The natural world is merciless about deficit spending. Plants, for example, never get away with it. They can grow new leaves, stems, or roots only if they have stored away enough molecules (such as starch and minerals) to pay for them. When a plant needs to produce new leaves, stems, and roots, and cannot, it dies. A polar bear must eat enough calories to allow it to produce body heat. Ice floes are merciless to deficit metabolic spending in polar bears. Natural selection does not permit deficit spending in most species.

In humans, the story is not quite so simple. We have invented something virtually unknown in other species: credit. Rather than being a bad thing, it can (within limits) be a good thing, allowing mortgages to buy houses, and other forms of investment. It is a form of social capital, made possible by our highly developed capacity for altruism. Plants can only invest what they have already saved; humans can invest what they are pretty sure they will obtain in the future. For our species, credit is a resource. Our current crisis has resulted from the abuse of this resource. But there is a proper use of the resource. One of them is to invest in health. It is the crushing costs of health care that drive thousands of people into bankruptcy. The enormous costs generated by uninsured people using the emergency room for preventable problems are causing everybodyĆ­s insurance premiums to increase much faster than the rate of inflation. Unlike the Iraq War and the tax cuts for the wealthy, health care is a good investment.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on my website on December 6, 2009.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Strangling of Altruism

This essay is based upon some experience that was too personal to put into my new book, but is suitable for a blog—especially since I suspect some of you have had some similar experiences. Either that or you will pretty soon. Here’s why.

As a university faculty member, I am required by the Department of Homeland Security to complete two online courses of emergency management training. The motivation for these training courses is to avoid the snafus that occurred with Hurricane Katrina and the Columbine shootings, in which emergency response was mired in chaos. Institutions and governments were unprepared and had no idea what to do. And since anyone at any time might be called upon to deal with a crisis situation, then anyone in a position of responsibility (apparently that includes professors) should have a plan and know what to do. The big debacle of Hurricane Katrina was caused by Homeland Security itself, since FEMA was run by a Bush political appointee (trained as a racehorse lawyer) Michael Brown, and they found out about the disaster from watching television. The uncoordinated response was the fault of FEMA but they are ordering us to fix the problem by training ourselves as emergency responders along with, or instead of, them.

So far so good. I consider it my altruistic responsibility to be prepared to assist fellow citizens/humans during an emergency. But the online training session was an exercise in internal contradiction and massive constriction of altruism.

“We’re from the government, we’re here to help” is usually a call to go hide. This was certainly the case here.

First, we were required to memorize a chain of command that is extremely complex. The incident commander is the top dog, and he can appoint “chiefs” of functions such as planning, operations, liaison, logistics, and public information. It is actually a lot more complex than that, because under the chiefs superintend the directors of branches, which supervise the supervisors of divisions. Think of it as a Linnaean taxonomy: responders are species, divisions are genera, branches are families, sections are orders.

And it gets more complex from there. Within each division, I think, there are task forces (consisting of “mixed resources,” where “resources” refers to people) and strike teams, which consist of similar resources. They are also divided into groups, which are functional units, and divisions, which are geographical units. So I guess a medic could be a member of a medical strike team in a group but also in a northeast-part-of-town division.

Second, the taxonomy is always changing. The size of the incident command system (ICS) depends on the incident. If someone drops a bottle of acid in my lab, I am the incident commander, and I can appoint the janitor as my chief of operations, and we can clean up the mess (which is not a trivial thing but need not involve a SWAT team). In doing so, I’d better remember to declare myself commander and officially deputize him as chief. If the acid drips through the floor, then the Director of Physical Plant comes over and becomes the new incident commander, perhaps assigning me to be the chief of liaison, which means that I can go to the department secretary and appoint her as my branch director of liaison so that she can make phone calls. And none of us are supposed to tell anybody outside the university about what is happening, since this is the job of the director of public information, I think. Everyone’s role keeps changing, as the incident gets bigger and then gets smaller as it is dealt with. It is like saying that Canis is a family, and familiaris and latrans are genera, but then along comes Canidae and makes itself the family, and now Canis is a genus and familiaris is a species. Moment by moment, the taxonomy changes.

One of the most important charges is that we must avoid jargon. Yet ICS (incident command system), EOC (emergency operations center), IAP (incident action plan), and ICP (incident command post) were on the final exam for this course, at least a couple of them were, and you are required to pass the exam at 75% if you want your university to continue receiving any federal funds!

Third, none of this might matter except that you cannot take orders from anyone except your immediate supervisor. A branch director cannot take commands from the incident commander but only from his or her section chief. And a chief of operations cannot tell a director of liaison what to do. If the liaison chief is otherwise occupied, the director cannot do anything. So this system creates an unmanageable mess of contradictions.

I have been trained now but I know less than I did before about what to do during an emergency. Used to be that I could consult the brochure, which Campus Safety put on our walls by the doors, to see what to do. Those brochures are nice and clear and easy to find. But now we have to be obedient components of chains of command that keep changing.

Worst of all, this system strangles altruism. A person cannot just go help someone in need. If a student has CPR training, she cannot go and help someone who needs it. She is instead to report to the director of operations and identify herself and receive orders. This was actually a quiz question during the course. I am not making this up. Had I chosen the answer that she was supposed to start administering CPR, it would have been the wrong answer. Supposedly she should step right over people who need help and go look for a director of operations (not the director of planning or of liaison!). Here is an exact quote I wrote down during the course: “Until you are mobilized, you remain in your everyday role.”

Rather than facilitating emergency response or altruism, this plan, imposed on us by a federal agency, will force an unclear but inviolable chain of command which puts a person’s authority over the need to help someone. And this chain of command is not the same as the university chain of command. At our university, the administration demands strict adherence to their chain of command. What will happen if, in an emergency, the Physical Plant director claims (rightly) to be my superior but the dean claims to be in charge? Could I get reprimanded by the university chain of command for obeying the ICS?

But, oh well, I got a nice certificate to put on my wall, certifying my altruist status.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Future of Altruism

I continue my discussion of altruism, one of the most important human evolutionary adaptations.

President Barack Obama was swept into office on a tide of enthusiasm. But he is one idealistic altruist, allied with a few other idealistic people, and can only work through a slow and contaminated mass of administrators. At least, President Obama has made efforts to create a “transparent” administration, even to the extent of placing minutes of departmental meetings online. This could not contrast more strongly with the preceding administration, particularly the notoriously secretive office of former Vice President Dick “Dick” Cheney. We Americans dare to expect our government to be altruistic. The majority of Americans believe Barack Obama is altruistic, but remain unconvinced about his appointees, many of whom were financial executives receiving large compensations.

Altruism evolved in communities. The death of communities, and their replacement by multinational corporations, may prove to be the death of altruism. When, for example, all food is produced by a few global corporations, we have to take what they offer. Contrast this with farmers’ markets, where you buy food face-to-face from the people who produce it. When the people who run a community or a state live in it, they are much more accountable to their neighbors. This is the reason that conferences of mayors or of governors have much more bipartisan cooperation than Congress. The local altruistic citizenry of nearly every community wants energy efficiency and a clean environment; but Congress listens to the moneyed interests of the coal, oil, and gas industries, who want us to burn as much fossil fuel as possible. When large corporations and political parties are in control of the world, there is no voice for altruism.

We have already gotten a few glimpses into what the world could be like if many countries suffered a breakdown of altruism. We call them “failed states.” The genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the last decade of the twentieth century, or in the Sudan in the first decade of the twenty-first, show how people who had been living with a semblance of peace can suddenly erupt into insane violence. Just as the human brain is capable of altruism, it is also capable of classifying other human beings as non-persons and killing them with no feelings of empathy whatever. This is unlikely to occur except under highly unusual circumstances, but it is clearly possible.

It would take thousands of years for the genetic underpinnings of human altruism to erode away. Unfortunately, the cultural norms of altruism are essential for unlocking these genes. If we interrupt the cultural transmission of altruism, we may collapse into a nightmare world of dark conflict in which the old altruistic tendencies are groping around, unable to emerge.

A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Evolution of Delusion (a Thanksgiving Day Message)

Today is Thanksgiving. But it is also the fortieth anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese writer who sometimes wrote feel-good novels (e.g. The Sound of the Waves) and very rarely even humor (e.g. the short story Tamago, or Eggs). But he was most famous for writing fiction with angst, much of which was focused on the loss of the spirit of Japan (Yamato damashii). As I understand it, his mind was in the grip of a delusion that Japan had a glorious samurai past, where warriors had total honor and would rather commit ritual suicide than to submit to any loss of face. The ritual suicide was, of course, seppuku, which is the same as harakiri—the former is the fancy, the latter the ordinary, way of saying it in Japanese. He had a small cult of young men who followed him, like a band of samurai, or perhaps like ronin, the wandering samurai who had no home after Japan entered the modern world in the nineteenth century. But this was post-World-War-II Japan, with no room for either samurai or seppuku.

To Mishima, Japan’s defeat in World War II was an intolerable loss of face. And quite possibly he was influenced by his own cowardice during World War II: when he was drafted, he told the doctors at his physical exam that he had tuberculosis, and he was relieved from Army duty. It was not until 1967 that he joined the postwar version of the Japanese army (the Self Defense force; Japan’s constitution, written by the United States, forbade an army capable of international expansion). He considered this army to not be patriotic enough, so he formed the Tatenokai (Shield Society) in 1968, which upheld bushido (the way of the warrior) and swore to uphold the Emperor. However, he did not think that even Emperor Hirohito was patriotic enough, because Hirohito had renounced his own divinity at the end of World War II.

Mishima was one of the last holdouts of the delusions that were widespread in Japan before and during World War II. Such delusions can, as the Hakko Ichiu principle (Japanese world dominion) did, grip an entire nation. But even this was not enough for Mishima and his followers. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his Tatanokai visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Self-Defense Force. Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his hair. Then Mishima stood on a balcony and delivered a prepared speech, about returning Japan to its glory, to the soliders who had gathered below. He asked the soldiers to join him in a coup d’etat, but they just jeered him. He finished his speech, went into the commandant’s office, and committed harakiri. After he had partially disemboweled himself, one of his assistants was supposed to behead him, in the traditional manner; but this assistant was unable to do so, and another assistant had to finish the job for him. It is now generally believed that Mishima had not intended the coup to be successful, but had planned his ritual suicide for years, and he had made sure his legal affairs, including money for the legal defense of the remaining Tatenokai members, were in order before his final battle.

Delusions can completely determine what a person considers to be reality. Every piece of sensory information is interpreted as a reinforcement of the delusion. This might seem to be an imperfection of the brain that evolution would have gotten rid of. But delusions can sometimes provide evolutionary advantages to the people who have them and to the societies in which these people live. If you have two tribes, one of which has delusions of being God’s chosen conquerors of the world and the other of which values reason over emotion, guess which one will win the war. If a delusional tribe wins territory and resources, its individual members, to varying degrees, will have greater evolutionary fitness. The human mind is capable of intense delusion, and this is the product of natural selection.

Well, I have tied this story in with evolution and religion. Let me finally tie it in with Thanksgiving. Americans have a delusion, even if only mildly held, that the Pilgrims were heroic pioneers who came to the New World from England for religious freedom. But after leaving England, they mad moved to the Netherlands, where they had religious freedom—but so did everyone else. The Pilgrims wanted the “freedom” to enforce their religion, so they had to form their own colony, in Massachusetts. When they got there, they nearly starved, but were rescued by the welfare provided to them by a socialistic Native American tribe. Later, they showed their gratitude by carrying out genocide against this tribe. Pilgrim leader William Bradford describes the way the colonists surrounded a Pequot village at sunrise. They set it ablaze and killed anyone who fled. Bradford wrote, “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the colonists] gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully.” They were able to ignore the suffering that they inflicted on their fellow humans because their brains were deluded with the idea that they were God’s chosen people upon the face of the Earth and had the right, even the responsibility, to slaughter anyone (at least any Indian) who questioned their delusion.

But let me end with something to be thankful for on this day. Evolution has given our species the ability to create, in our minds, a beautiful world based upon the sensory information that those minds receive—brilliant color, wonderful scents of food, beautiful music. They are illusory creations of our minds, but let us enjoy them anyway. They are more beauty than we, the products of natural selection, have any right to have expected.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Suppression of Altruism

As explained in earlier entries, altruism is one of the most important human evolutionary adaptations. But administrations of governments, universities, and corporations have institutionalized the repression of altruism to a breathtaking extent. Very commonly, they are so hostile toward altruism that they make decisions that cost them dearly in profits and reputation. They create a fortress of secrecy within which the leaders demand absolute loyalty. Administrators restrict access, so that only one or a few persons can address them. It is not uncommon for altruistic employees, as soon as they have a good idea, to be swiftly suppressed by administrators as in a giant game of Whac-a-Mole. Sounds like the Dilbert world, but it is not imaginary—it is the world in which many of us live. The climate of intimidation and secrecy was one of the main reasons that illegal activities progressed within Enron to the point that it collapsed.

One result of the suppression of altruism in both public and private sectors is that self-correction becomes impossible. The illegal financial activities of Enron, and the deceptive economic practices of the top investment banks in the United States, were revealed only when they became so large that they could no longer be hidden. The worldwide financial “meltdown” began in the United States and the administration of President George W. Bush and major financial corporations are largely responsible for it. The current financial crisis has demonstrated, not for the first time, that corporate selfishness is a recipe for not only moral but financial chaos. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1937, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

It is not the desire for profits that has caused the centuries-long decline in altruism and the current financial crisis. Every business that has ever existed has tried to make as much profit as possible. That’s what business is about. But when businesses existed within communities, they could not get away with dishonest practices, or if they did, their collapse was localized. But now that community businesses have become global corporations, dishonest and destructive practices can spread along the tendrils of administration and management and infect their offices all over the world. Rather than being accountable to their neighbors, they are accountable to no one but themselves. When this happens, we reward them. They declare themselves to be “TBTF,” or too big to fail; they demand, and receive, billions of dollars of government aid.

Meanwhile, the CEOs of the top financial corporations in the United States seem to be utterly oblivious to the resentment of millions of Americans. Many of these executives received millions of dollars of compensation even while their corporations were losing money and receiving government assistance. When the leaders of the top three American automakers first came to Washington, D.C. to ask for government assistance, they flew in corporate jets. They were genuinely surprised that Congressional leaders reacted in anger. These executives then drove to Washington in the smallest cars their companies manufactured (according to one cartoonist, these were the Ford Implorer, the Chevrolet Grovel, and the Chrysler Mendicant). Some CEOs paid back small amounts of their compensation, but their corporations quickly went back to paying them huge bonuses. Americans are angry.

Altruism requires fairness. The emotion that reinforces fairness is sometimes called “sweet revenge,” and sometimes goes by its German name Schadenfreude. Intelligent animals derive pleasure from seeing the humiliation, and sometimes even the suffering, of other animals who have gained their advantages unfairly. It has been observed in chimpanzees. On one occasion, two male chimps who observed another male chimp receiving special treats from human visitors escaped from their enclosure and attacked the man. The chimps chewed off most of the man’s face and buttocks, ripped off his foot, and bit off both of his testicles, before they were shot. I wonder how many Americans would like to see something like this happen to the CEOs who profit from their destruction of our economy.

A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Altruism in Recent History

In recent decades, evolutionary altruism appears to have become more common in the human species. Even as recently as World War Two, people of civilized countries thought that there was absolutely nothing wrong with killing thousands of civilians who happened to live in an enemy country. The Firestorm of Dresden and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed reasonable to Americans, even though very few of the victims were actually responsible for German and Japanese aggression. The Rape of Nanking and the conquest of Europe seemed reasonable to Japanese and German citizens. While many soldiers had a hard time shooting fellow human beings, most soldiers and civilians approved of mass bombings of civilians whom they did not have to look in the eye. Somewhere around the time of the Vietnam War, this attitude changed. It was no longer acceptable to massacre a village, such as My Lai, just because there might be some enemy combatants there. Today, whenever an American bomb kills civilians in Afghanistan, there is a worldwide uproar. All around the world, people of every religious conviction or of no religious conviction are uniting in their rejection of torture, genocide, and war-related cruelty. This sounds like good news. I cling to it, because it is almost the only good news about the direction the world is headed.

But we must remember that this altruistic progress is the result of the beliefs and actions of individuals rather than of governments. Governments, at best, acknowledge the human rights that their people demand, and at worst suppress them. Government administrations do not advance human rights. The American government responded to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., first with hostility, then with acquiescence, and only after many years with admiration. The progress of altruism has always and only come from the bottom up. When altruists find themselves in positions of power, they also find themselves in positions of frustration, and seldom accomplish very much.

And it is usually not facts and figures that stir people’s hearts to create a change. It was not the list of deaths and battles in Vietnam that altered American opinion; it may have been a single Associated Press photograph of children running from the village of Trangbang on June 8, 1972, screaming in pain from the burning napalm with which they had just been doused. We are still an altruistic species, and when we see something like that, it moves the hearts of everyone—with the exception of psychopaths.

A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Humbly Suggest that Scientists Should Rule the World

Politicians rule the world. They claim that they know how the world works, how to get things done, how the economy runs, and that is why they should be the ones to rule the world. Well, I guess this is why everything is just fine in the world—because it is in the competent hands of politicians.

But politicians consider us scientists to be impractical. Our scientific minds focus on the natural world, whether it is human brain cells or the growth of forests. They think we do not know what “the real world” of laws and political deals is really like.

This is, however, blatantly untrue. Politicians live in a fake world—in which “truth” is determined by whatever will get them elected, which means that “truth” is whatever their major corporate donors want them to believe. Politicians do rely on data from the real world, but then they filter and twist it into a pretend-world, for example a world in which we can dump our carbon dioxide and Nature will clean it up for us. Will Rogers said, as I recall, “My jokes don’t hurt nobody. But when Congress makes a law it’s a joke, and when they tell a joke it’s a law.”

Here are some reasons why scientists could competently run the world (at least, more competently than politicians):

· Scientists base their assertions on verifiable facts.
· Scientists demand to do things that have been previously proven to work.
· Scientists follow a protocol that (almost always) ensures honesty.
· Scientists really do know how the world works, from atoms to organisms to societies.
· Scientists have had international cooperation for centuries; American and Soviet scientists worked together (not, of course, on war-related topics) even during the Cold War.

The Obama administration is noticeably more open to input from scientists than any preceding Republican administration, especially the Bush administration that was openly hostile toward science. But Obama’s administration is still mostly politicians doing political things based on their pretend-world of political rules. Even Obama listened a lot more to Rahm Emanuel than to his cabinet-level scientists.

Would a society run by scientists be a utopia? I don’t know, but it might. It would certainly be an improvement over what we have.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Henry David Thoreau, Prophet and Scientist

The following essay appeared on my website on July 11, 2009.

A prophet is not someone who just predicts the future. Since the most ancient times, prophets have been men (and women; even when women were excluded from official religious positions) who have predicted disastrous outcomes to the way most people in their society lived; called for repentance from that way; and themselves lived in a way that was a constant reminder of the way of repentance. Repentance is not just a religious word; it means to turn around and utterly change the direction of your life.

This is exactly what Henry David Thoreau did in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s and 1850s. He continually wrote and spoke (mostly at the Concord Lyceum) about how happiness does not come from the accumulation of material comforts, especially at the cost of debt, but from quiet contemplation of the wonders with which the natural world is continually filled. He is most famous for living in the woods for a couple of years, which was when he put his ideas into practice, and which time is recounted in his classic Walden. He reveled in building a comfortable cabin for very little money, and living on a very small income, the details of the budgets being shared with his readers. Thoreau was an inconvenient man. Though by no means a hermit (he went to town every couple of days even during his cabin phase), he was always separated from the normal crowd: when in town, he observed people as might an anthropologist from another planet. His presence was a prophetic denouncement of his materialistic society.

There was financial unrest then—as the agricultural economy of Massachusetts was being driven aside by the farms of the Ohio Valley and the railroads that brought their produce to the east—as there is now, and his example is valuable to us today. There are many prophets today, who write books, but who also live frugally, to prove that it can be done and as a challenge to the rest of society.

But Thoreau was also a scientist, though without formal training. The peace that he experienced came from close and quiet observation of the natural world, which is what scientists do. Nature suggested hypotheses to him, which he (however imperfectly) investigated. He was passionate about observing (the colors of ice and the stages by which it thawed) and measuring (the depths of Walden Pond). Scholars puzzle that his last writings were all “mere observations” of seed dispersal and spring budburst dates of plants. But, as one who like Thoreau has a big database of budburst dates, only on a computer instead of in a notebook, I am not puzzled at all. His observations were the basis upon which important ecological science was later based. Even his cabin in the woods was an experiment.

Without Ralph Waldo Emerson, there would have been no remembrance of Thoreau. It was Emerson’s woodlot in which Thoreau briefly lived (and it was almost the only forest remaining in the vicinity). Emerson popularized Thoreau after the latter’s death. But they were very different. Emerson was full of hot air. He would write long flowery-tongued passages about things, whether about the world of nature or the breathlessness of love, which he had not bothered to study. To Thoreau, nature was a living world from which to learn; to Emerson, it was a canvas upon which to paint his grand ideas. For example, Emerson said that “savage” languages were simple and consisted mostly of nouns. Had he even bothered to ask anyone who had learned Native American languages, and there were plenty in his scholarly circle, he would have known this was wrong. But Thoreau was fascinated by what he could learn from Native Americans. (His last words were “moose” and “Indian.”)

For our survival, we need to heed the example of the prophet Thoreau. In our technological arrogance, we have had enough of Emersonian projection of our ideas upon the world.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Some More Thoughts About Altruism

Today is election day, and I am posting this entry before the results are in. The election forms the backdrop for yet more comments I will make about one of the best human adaptations, the capacity for altruism. Across the country, observers have noticed the overwhelming flood of negative campaign ads. While surveys have shown that the candidates themselves favor positive ads, the “independent” groups that support them funnel a seemingly unlimited amount of money into negative ads. These groups have such names as “Fund for Freedom, Love, Goodwill, and a Bright Future,” or something like that. I might note that, since I do not have television, my own estimate relies on the large amount of campaign mail that I receive in Oklahoma. In this reddest of red states, I am surprised that the campaign mail seems mostly positive. Republican Tom Coburn is running for Senate again, and I have seen none of his ads; but in 2004 his negative ads were really vicious. But in general, even if not in Oklahoma in 2010, altruism seems buried by negativity.

Midterm elections usually favor the minority party, and this one will almost certainly be no exception. This means that, at least on the national level, altruistic cooperation will be more important than ever. If Congress goes Republican, it will have to participate in a give-and-take with the Democratic president (direct reciprocity), if anything is to be done; and the reputation of both parties will depend on their display of goodwill (indirect reciprocity). At least, this is my hope. But I remember the government shutdown in 1995, because Newt Gingrich’s Republicans demanded that President Clinton do everything they wanted, and I suspect that something at least this bad will happen again.

Altruism is an instinct, and like most instincts it operates at an almost subconscious level that would be nearly impossible to codify into rules. Imagine programming a computer to be altruistic. Altruism cannot be legislated. Let me give an example. When I sit in my backyard, I can hear the bleating of a goat down the alley. Remember, this is in the city limits of Durant, Oklahoma. I imagine that one goat is no problem: not much noise, not much waste. But how many goats are too many? You could make a law about this but it would be complex: how many goats per unit area could be allowed, relative to waste disposal processes. I can imagine city officials spending hours on a goat ordinance. But altruism makes it simple: don’t have so many goats that it bothers your neighbors. You can probably think of a nearly unlimited number of examples of legal complexity that could be avoided by altruism. No matter how complex the laws may be, a non-altruist can find a technicality around them.

It can get even worse. Yugoslavia, during the Soviet era, was at peace not because of altruism but because of Tito’s dictatorship. As soon as the dictatorship was gone, all hell broke loose. The nearly total absence of altruism virtually ruined that part of the world. An unstable altruistic truce exists in Rwanda, one which totally broke down in 1994. My point is simply that nothing can take the place of altruism.

And in upcoming years, our politicians will need to remember this, especially the Republicans who are clearly less altruistic than Democrats, and who have promised that, if they take power, they will offer no compromise. John Baynor has declared the number one priority of a new Republican majority to be the destruction of Barack Obama’s presidency. I fear that altruism will not just be ignored but be shunned by the hyperventilating Republicans.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Scientific Faith

All scientists are people of faith. A few are religious people, adhering to specific doctrines. Most are spiritual, with a reverence for the beauty of the universe, particularly of whatever part of it they are studying (in my case, trees and other plants). But all scientists make at least one assumption of faith. We believe that we can find the truth.

All of us scientists believe that the universe makes sense and that we at least have a chance to figure out how. We analyze light from distant galaxies, with a firm faith that light in those galaxies obeys the same laws of physics as does the light from our own sun, and that from that light we can determine the distance of the galaxy and how rapidly it is rushing away from its Big Bang point of origin. We believe in our own brains. We cannot see the Big Bang but we trust that our inference of it, from the correspondence between distance and velocity of the galaxies, is not a delusion. We believe that if there is a God, he has not created fake light to trick us into thinking that the universe is 13.2 billion years old, or fake DNA in our chromosomes to make it look like we had evolutionary ancestors when in fact we did not, and did not magically move plants and animals around during the Flood to make the resulting fossils appear to have an evolutionary order.

I have students who do believe that God made fake light, fake DNA, and a fake fossil record to trick us into rejecting creationism. Not surprisingly, these are the students who have little interest in science, even the science that should be compatible with their religion. These are the students who often plagiarize papers, since they are not interested in thinking for themselves. What is the point, if the physical world is an illusion?

But, I assert, it is the scientists, not the anti-scientists, who are people of faith. It is faith because we cannot prove that the universe is not a fake scenario created by God. I doubt that any of us scientists has ever stopped in the middle of our work and thought, “Geez! What if everything I am studying is just an illusion created by Zeus?” And we stake our entire lives on this faith. If a government were ever to threaten to kill us for accepting the evidence of evolution, most of us would probably end up being martyrs.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sexual Selection and Conservative Politics

There is a close connection between sex and conservative politics. Not the one you would first think of, namely, that many conservative politicians are boastful of their sexual infidelities, and remain proudly in office proclaiming Republican family values. Mark Sanford, Newt Gingrich, and David Vitter are names that come quickly to mind. (Check them out on a website I found.) Rather, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection helps to explain the very existence of conservative politics. Here’s how.

Sexual selection is a process that rewards organisms for characteristics that allow them to mate more successfully—even if those characteristics are otherwise dangerous or wasteful for the organism. The example that is most often used is the bright feathers of birds. Colorful feathers do not help a bird get more food, or to be better adapted to its climate. The feathers serve only to attract mates. Most evolutionary biologists agree that the color feathers are indicators of the health and strength of the bird—only a healthy bird could afford to make them. A female bird cannot judge the quality of a male bird’s hidden genes, but the colorful feathers are indicators of underlying genetic quality.

Health, and bravery. A male deer with big antlers (some Irish elk, an extinct species of deer, had antlers a fathom wide) is healthy, and a male deer that can push aside another male deer with his antlers is brave. The female deer want to benefit from the resources and territory of the dominant male. In many animal species, males compete with other males and females choose from among them.

As Geoffrey Miller points out, many human characteristics have been sexually selected as fitness indicators. For example, hunting and sports are activities that contribute little to domestic economy, but allow males to show off how brave and strong they are to females. (The women do not usually see the hunt itself, but see the big animal that the triumphant hunter brings home.) And women often show off their abilities to men as well. In humans, both men and women compete with members of their own gender and choose members of the other.

I will take Miller’s idea one step further. I admit this is a speculative hypothesis. If any readers have an idea of how my hypothesis can be tested, let me know.

Conservative politics is a fitness indicator just like big antlers or the instinct to fight. As a matter of fact, conservative politics mostly consists of fighting. A fiercely conservative man will nearly always speak in warlike terms, and even in the complete absence of information he is extremely decisive. His sword is always at the ready. Nearly all of them, in my experience, say “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, but this is the truth.” This is a nearly exact quote that I frequently hear from them. We shoot first and ask questions later, says the sign posted outside of many conservative houses. Many women find this attractive, because they feel that the opinionated man would be a good fighter and defend the home from being attacked by Democrats. Likewise, many conservative women who spout off warlike ideals may do so, even subconsciously, in the hope that a strong fighter will be attracted to them.

In most cases, reason and the search for evidence is not as sexy. The stereotypical Democrat wants to reason, reach consensus, and do what is best for everybody. This is why true conversations cannot take place between far right conservatives and anyone else (even moderate Republicans). Conservatives spout their talking points and shift immediately into abuse. For a progressive to engage a conservative in conversation is like a medieval Irish monk trying to reason with a Viking who is pissing in the Eucharist grail, or like a dull bird trying to explain to the chicks how he really does have good genes, really.

Conservatism is not really a political position. Conservatives claim to be pro-family and opposed to big government. But many of them are pro-adultery and want as big a government as possible in order to start wars and pay contractors a lot of money for little work at taxpayer expense. They have talking points, not principles. And this is exactly what an evolutionary explanation would predict: the talking points are intended to intimidate, not to prove anything. Conservatives seem to have a deep psychological need to be hypocrites. Nearly every conservative I know is a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is a display of power—“I’m lying, and you can’t do anything about it,” they seem to say.

This idea came to me when I saw one of my students—a meek and gentle girl—wearing a T-shirt with an image of Rosie the Riveter. The shirt read, “Up yours, Obama.” During the Bush Administration, a liberal wearing a T-shirt that deliberately offended Bush would have at least been questioned by authorities as being possible terrorist sympathizers. But if a conservative insults Obama (who, I remind you, is commander in chief of a war against terrorists, just as Bush was), it is hallowed free speech. Even though the Al Qaeda terrorists believe just as strongly as this girl in “Up yours, Obama,” no one will call her a terrorist sympathizer. No one will threaten this girl with death, as I heard my fellow Okies threaten the Dixie Chicks in 2002. Now, I could simply have been offended (although, as a professor, it would be inappropriate for me to confront the student in anger). Instead, I reflected that this was the product of ongoing human social evolution. This girl, who seems so gentle, may not herself be mean, but may be seeking the protection of a strong, mean man. (And, of course, there are many strong, mean conservative women who have male admirers.) Conservatives are mean, and it is a sexual turn-on. That’s the way it has always been, at least since the days of Athens and Sparta, and probably since the days when Og bragged around the campfire about how he was more glorious in war than Zog as the listening villagers ate auroch meat. Conservatism has nothing to do with reason and evidence, and conservative voters cannot be swayed by either.

Conservatism is the product of evolution by means of sexual selection. This is rather humorous, given that they pretend to be sexually modest and they hate evolution.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Death of Gonzago

Evolution is the most outstanding example of science that the world has ever seen. The framework of evolution has been constructed from thousands of hypotheses, each of them tested and confirmed. It is true that evolution, as a whole, cannot be tested; it is simply too big. But all of the hypotheses of which evolutionary theory consists have been proven.

The scientific mindset, in all walks of life, consists of testing hypotheses with evidence. When I hypothesize that someone has done something (usually something bad), based on circumstantial evidence, I then gather direct evidence to test my hypothesis. This sometimes leads me to reluctantly consider that my hypothesis was wrong. The scientific method leads to honesty and fairness in human interactions because it forbids us to draw conclusions from our hunches. A hunch is a good hypothesis with which to begin, but it must be tested before you conclude that someone is guilty of wrongdoing.

One of the most famous, though seldom recognized, examples of someone using the scientific method is Hamlet. He was thoroughly convinced that his uncle had murdered his father, and became king. After all, his father’s ghost had told him so. The murder was particularly gruesome. “Sleeping within my garden, my custom always of the afternoon,” said the ghost, the uncle sneaked up with a vial of poison, and “in the porches of my ear did pour the leperous distilment, whose effect holds such an enmity with the blood of man that…with a sudden vigor doth posset and curd, like eager droppings into milk…”

But how could Hamlet convince anyone that the king was a murderer? How did he, himself, know that he was not crazy? He needed to test his hypothesis.

The opportunity came when a troop of actors came through Elsinore. A brilliant experiment popped into Hamlet’s mind. He asked the troop leader if they could perform The Death of Gonzago. They said they could, and Hamlet arranged for its performance. In this play, a murder was enacted that was exactly the same as the way Hamlet’s uncle poisoned his father. Hamlet’s hypothesis was that if the king was guilty, he would react strongly upon seeing the murder enacted. If the king seemed unmoved, it might mean he was innocent, or it might mean he was just a cool liar. But it was an experiment worth doing. The experiment made Hamlet particularly excited, with the kind of glee a scientist often feels: “The play’s the thing wherein we will catch the conscience of the king.”

The experiment worked. The king, stood up and walked away during the enactment of the murder. As it turned out, though, Hamlet was not able to use this evidence to prove the king’s guilt. Or at least he didn’t. But it was a good, scientific try. And it convinced him that he was not just imagining what the ghost of his father had told him.

The anti-evolutionists take the first thoughts that pop into their heads and run off to metaphorically murder scientists (the way Hamlet, assuming the bulge behind the curtain was the king, stabbed Polonius) without carefully testing their hypotheses. In contrast, the patience of evolutionists, testing tens of thousands of hypotheses, one strand of DNA at a time, one fossil at a time, has led to the construction of the greatest structure of knowledge the world has ever known.

Also, please remember to tell your associates about this blog, and to vote Democratic (the less unsatisfactory choice) in the upcoming midterm elections.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Lover's Embrace?

Richard Dawkins visited the University of Oklahoma on March 6, 2009. In the parking lot outside of the field house where he spoke, a van was parked. It was a van for the Thank God For Evolution group. In the logo on the side of the van, a Jesus fish, an extremely common symbol on bumper stickers, was kissing a Darwin fish.

While this sentiment is commendable—who would not want to minimize the unnecessary conflict between evolutionary science and religious objections to it?—it is misleading. It creates the appearance but does not deliver the substance of resolving a conflict.

First, evolution is a science and religion is religion. They do not have the same objectives. Evolutionary science can help to explain the origin of religion and of religions, and science can test religious claims. But science cannot determine which ethical beliefs are right.

Second, a major contradiction remains between evolutionary science and Christianity, no matter which interpretation is used. Evolution is based on natural selection, which is a ruthless, merciless, and often arbitrary process. The losers in the evolutionary struggle may have inferior genes, through no fault of their own; or may simply be experiencing bad luck. And the deaths of the losers in the evolutionary arena are often grisly and painful. How could a God of love and compassion, a God who rewards goodness, use such a process as a method of creation? Nature, in its daily operation as well as its evolutionary history, presents a picture of its creator (or its creative process) that starkly contradicts the Biblical God.

A few years ago, I wrote a book manuscript in which I attempted such a resolution between evolutionary science and Christian belief. (Interestingly, I entitled it “Thank God For Evolution,” the same title that was used more recently by a book that apparently inspired the organization that sponsored the van.) Even Niles Eldredge thought it would be a good book, and told me so. My agent, however, was not interested in it, and in hindsight this was a wise decision for which I am grateful. If I had published this book, I would now be a little bit embarrassed of it, mostly due to its projection of certainty. At the time, I thought I had resolved the conflict; now I know that probably nobody can do so. In that manuscript, I spoke confidently about God, as if anybody could know who or what God is.

The best we can do is to admit the truth and the consequences of evolutionary science; to admit that we cannot define our religious terms; and to make our best efforts to decide for ourselves the ethical principles by which we, and the world, should live. Even an atheist can do this. Atheism does not lead to a rejection of ethics and a pursuit of brutal selfishness. Somebody asked Richard Dawkins (the world’s most famous atheist) if he thought there was any basis for ethical beliefs. While he did not believe there were any transcendent truths, he did note that, all around the world, an ethical consensus is arising: despite ethnic and religious differences, people of many nations now understand that war and oppression and the abuse of the Earth are wrong. It is hard to pinpoint the sources of this ethical consensus, but there it is, and we can believe in it.

This essay first appeared on my website on April 26, 2009.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

At War with the Cosmos

The fundamental assumption of science is that the cosmos can be understood, and that it operates by consistent laws and principles. While this is an assumption that may be embraced by religion as well, I am not convinced that evangelical Christianity does so. Mainline denominations, and liberal groups such as the Quakers, appear to do so, but not the big, powerful, and loud fundamentalist groups that dominate the religious scene in America today.

Jesus told his disciples, “The world will hate you.” I always assumed, back in my fundamentalist days, that this meant that people who love to sin will hate those who tell them not to, or even imply by their moral lives that sinning is wrong. But this is not what the Biblical statement says. The “world” in that statement is kosmos. That is, the physical world that science studies. The implication (or so it was suggested by A. N. Wilson in his biography of Jesus) is that it is wrong, from the Christian viewpoint, to want to make sense of what happens in the world. The world, including the planets and plants, is the kosmos that is hostile to Christians. Jesus also said, to Doubting Thomas, blessed is he who does not see yet still believes. As Richard Dawkins points out, to evangelical Christians, the dissonance between facts and faith is itself accepted as confirmation of the faith.

I suppose this also means that truly religious people should reject Occam’s Razor. A complex creationist explanation full of invented stories (e.g., God moved the fossils around during the Flood to make them get buried in an evolutionary order, and God stuck thousands of pseudogenes into noncoding DNA to make it look like organisms had evolutionary ancestors) are just as good as the simplest and most straightforward explanations: that the fossils have an evolutionary order because they evolved over time, and that pseudogenes were genes used by real, living, evolutionary ancestors.

Christian scientific organizations such as the American Scientific Affiliation and the John Templeton Foundation will strongly object to this interpretation. Good for them, and they deserve our admiration for it. But this observation might make it easier to understand why so many religious people seem to live in a world devoid of reality when it comes to scientific, political, and cultural ideas. Get rid of that kosmos; the truth consists of whatever ideas pop up in my brain, because God must have planted them there.

Reminder to American readers: Remember to vote Democratic, which is the milder and less dangerous choice. Democrats, however imperfect they are, are more likely to get their facts from the kosmos.

Reminder: Send a link to this blog to your friends and professional associates.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Please Spread the Word

This is just a brief message to ask you to share this blog with your friends and acquaintances, even (or perhaps especially) with those who may not agree with it. There are not very many visitors to my two blogs, and I truly believe that a lot of people would benefit from reading them. It is certainly healthier fare than much of the hate-filled bile that is found in many blogs devoted to religion or to evolution. (Interestingly, I have more visitors from the Netherlands, Russia, and Luxembourg than from the US.)

But for those of you from America, please remember also to vote in the elections. I urge you to vote Democratic, since the Republicans represent a real possibility of danger to science and to religious freedom. I find it difficult to get excited about Democrats, but they are at least less dangerous than Republicans.

I realize that it is unlikely that this gentle blog can compete with blogs that push the buttons of unthinking anger, any more than a little garden herb can compete with a weed, but you can help.

And please leave comments, to which I will try to respond. If you bring up an interesting point, I can post something about it so that it does not remain hidden in the comments section.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The End of Altruism

The following essay is recycled from my website entry dated April 16, 2009.

Evolution is not “survival of the fittest.” Preachers like to portray evolution as bloody and merciless, favoring the powerful and violent animals over the weak and benign. But this picture is incorrect. Although evolution sometimes produces violence, it more often produces altruism in the world of animals. Altruism is when one animal is nice to another animal of the same species.

Evolution produces altruism in three ways. First, natural selection favors animals that help their close relatives to reproduce—for in this way, the animal can indirectly pass its genes into the next generation. The love of parents for children is biological, and is found in birds and mice as well as in humans. Second, natural selection favors direct reciprocity, in which an animal does something nice for another animal, in anticipation of getting the favor returned in the future. Third, natural selection favors indirect reciprocity, in which an animal (always a human animal, as far as we know) does something nice for another animal that cannot possibly ever return the favor—and thereby receives greater social status and esteem. We admire rich, generous donors. Animals—especially human animals—invest in “social capital”: having friends and admirers is usually better than having money in the bank.

Altruism was perhaps the most important process in human evolution. Our species existed as tribes. These tribes usually fought one another, but within each tribe there was a lot of altruism. The chief of the tribe enjoyed some benefits not available to other tribal members, but was not much richer than they, and did not enslave them or take all of their resources away from them. The primary reason they did not do this is because they would have to look their fellow tribesmen in the eye while doing it.

But with the beginning of civilization, altruism began to fall apart. Kings could enslave poor people or take all of their riches away from them. In a large city-state or empire, the king could hide in his throne-room and did not have to look his victims in the eye. Democracy began partly as a way of destroying the power of kings to do this. Today, very few kings remain and those few are primarily ornamental. Dictators may briefly get away with such behavior. But right here in the United States, rich people are able to oppress poor people in a way not very different from the way kings treated their slaves. Rich people today can take the life savings away from their victims while hiding in boardrooms and mansions, just as kings could hide in their palaces.

If only the rich people who caused the financial crisis in America, and which has spread around the world, could be made to look their victims in the eye! Maybe then they would be unable to walk off with millions of dollars of money from the federal government and from their investors, and altruism would return to our society.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Darwin, Science, and Bias

Scientists take great precautions against bias. Scientists, like all humans, have a tendency to see what they expect to see rather than what is really there. But scientists are very careful to design research and experiments in such a way as to exclude bias. For example, in testing drugs, the patients who receive the placebo (“sugarpill”), which does not contain the drug, are not told that the pill is a placebo, otherwise they would assume it will not work and they will report themselves as still being sick. But scientists go further and make sure the assistants who actually administer the placebo do not know that it is a placebo, lest the attitude of the assistant influence the patient’s attitude as well. The placebo usually has a bitter chemical in it, or even a mild sedative, so that the patient will believe that it is the real drug. A large amount of the design and expense of scientific research is to avoid bias.

Charles Darwin had to deal with bias also. His evolutionary theory gave nature, rather than God, the creative role. It is the ideal theory for someone who wants God out of the picture. Was Darwin such a person? Well, not at first; his wife Emma was a moderate creationist, and Charles was sensitive to her opinions, as you might guess. But after their daughter Annie died at a tragically young age, both Charles and Emma were devastated. This deepened Emma’s dependence upon Christianity but pushed Charles into agnosticism. This was years before Charles wrote the Origin of Species.

So Charles must have been biased against creationism and in favor of a theory that would make God irrelevant. But he worked very, very hard to make sure that his bias did not influence his scientific judgment. He spent years gathering information about the variability of traits in populations, and about natural selection, as well as about fossils, biogeography, and other evidences of evolution. The Origin of Species is full of numerous lines of reasoning, each with its own evidences, which lead to an undeniable conclusion. That is, he spent years amassing evidence that would prevent his bias from influencing his results. This is the mark of a true scientist.

Creationists are just the opposite. They hate evolution, and will grab at any shred of information that they can twist into evidence to support their view. They even bring together so-called evidences that contradict one another. For example, they present information that they claim proves the Flood of Noah, then they present information that they claim shows gaps in the fossil record. But if there was a flood, there could be no order in the fossil record in which gaps might appear!

Charles Darwin is an exemplar of the heroic scientist who disciplines him or herself to pursue the truth even when bias presses upon the scientist from his or her personal experience.

This essay will also appear in my website eventually.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Evolved Human Mind

In our species, intelligence is the most important adaptation. But our intelligence is not logical; it is an emotional intelligence, as any fan of Spock on Star Trek knows. Despite the amazing capacities of human minds, our evolutionary legacy has limited them in a way that may make us unable to respond adequately to our current crises such as climate and economic collapse. Here are some examples. You can probably think of a lot more.

First, our minds have an almost unlimited capacity for self-deception. We see what we expect to see, and if reality and expectation do not mesh, we accept the resulting cognitive dissonance. Even when we can look ahead and see that our resources are running out, we can hardly bring ourselves to conserve those resources. We will become frugal only after disaster has struck. I thought of this as I drove past a tract of huge houses, built in Tulsa during the housing bubble. Block after block of them. This is what the buyers wanted, and they deceived themselves that the national, and their personal, economies could grow forever. Realtors would rather sell one big house than three small houses—less work for the same money. Nothing but a crash will get people to become frugal. The good news is that, once the crash has occurred, people are pretty good at frugality. We may not, however, have a long enough transition period to reorder our lives into a contented frugality.

Second, our minds continually readjust to current circumstances. This is the “shifting baselines” phenomenon. My generation is probably the last one to be richer than the preceding generation; people of my daughter’s generation cannot expect the kind of riches their families had while they were growing up, and cannot expect to find jobs even if they are qualified. The mindset has shifted to something more like survival, and we are all beginning to feel that this is normal. We have already almost forgotten about a world in which we could just go buy things on credit and count on personal finances to slowly pay off the debt.

Third, our minds are social; we will not act until society changes. Despite the clear evidence that humans are causing global warming, and despite the fact that most Americans (and even more citizens of other countries) know this to be true, societal inertia has prevented meaningful change. It will, as I said above, take a crash to get a society to live frugally. A frugal life (we have to start thinking of this as a good word) is the best, perhaps the only, way to reduce our carbon emissions and disruptive climate collapse.

These mental characteristics worked fine in the Stone Age; but we must transcend them today. Is this even possible?

This essay will also appear on my website.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Weedy Religions

The religions of fury and hatred are here to stay. They include the radical right wing of Christianity and of Islam. They are certainly the most sensationalistic and obvious ones. The stunt pulled by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn Korans on September 11, 2010, made the news much more than the interfaith outreach of peaceful Christian groups. Islamist terrorists always make more news than the peaceful Muslim Sufis, so much so that most people do not even realize that there is a philosophical meditative branch of the Muslim religion. (Incidentally, the group that plans to build a mosque in lower Manhattan consists of Sufis.)

At first this seems strange, because the peaceful, constructive branches of Christianity and Islam seem so much more beneficial and reasonable. Why do the religions that want to build a better world fail to predominate over those that wish to destroy as much of the world that they can?

Religions consist of sets of ideas that spread through a process similar to natural selection in nature. In this sense, religions evolve. The religions that get themselves propagated most successfully from one human mind to another are the ones that predominate. As with the evolution of plants and animals, success depends not on long term quality but on immediate success. Plants and animals will do whatever they can, destructive or constructive, that allows them to have as many surviving offspring as possible: they can harm their fellow creatures, or benefit them, depending on the circumstances.

It is unfortunate that the religions of hatred are thriving at the expense of the religions of peace. The reasons are obvious. All that a religion of hatred has to do is to press a single button in the human psyche, releasing primal fury, fury that is powerful enough that the spouter of hatred contradicts him or herself and does not even notice it. (Example: the same people may claim that Obama is godless, and also a Muslim. What, pray tell, is a godless Muslim? Of course, he is neither.) In contrast, the religions of peace require people to stop and think. While some people are thinking, the spouters of hatred have already contaminated a dozen other people. Fundamentalist religions are simplistic: just give money to the preacher, go to church, vote Republican, and hate gays. Peaceful religions, in contrast, require a more thoughtful attitude about literally everything in the world.

But the spread of the religions of hatred is not automatic. It occurs mostly in disrupted social and political circumstances. People are already thinking only brief thoughts in the short term, since the economy and world events are in such turmoil. How do you think ahead when everything may change in a few weeks or years?

I study plant ecology. I could not help but notice that the religions of hatred resemble weeds. Weeds are plants that grow rapidly, produce a lot of seeds, then die. Before you know it, you have thousands of weeds. The religions of peace are more like trees, which grow slowly for many years. Weeds grow best in an open space that has been recently disturbed, often by human activity such as bulldozing. Eventually the trees will take over, unless the disturbance continues. In places where disturbances occur frequently, weeds can spread but trees never get a chance to grow big enough to produce their seeds. Natural selection has favored weeds that produce a lot of seeds and then die, in disturbed environments, and trees that produce fewer seeds and live for a long time, in stable environments.

The religions of hatred are weedy religions. They grow and spread rapidly. The tree-like religions of peace never get a chance to grow because disruptions and crises keep happening. This will only get worse in the “long emergency” of climate disruption, as described by David Orr (Down to the Wire) and Bill McKibben (Eaarth).

For a weed, there is no future. A weed is going to die soon anyway, and there is no point in preparing for the future. For a tree, the future is the environment in which it will spend centuries of its life. The parallel with religion is unmistakable. To a fundamentalist, there is no future; God is going to come right away and destroy everything. But to a peaceful religious person, the future is what is most important.

Unfortunately, it appears that the immediate future of the Earth is going to look like a continually ravaged and re-ravaged weed patch, both in terms of its physical appearance, the plants and animals and the places that people live, and in terms of its religious and social environment.

A version of this essay will also appear on my website.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Optimism and Hope

The major human evolutionary adaptation is culture. Without culture, which includes writing and altruism, the human species has no hope. Global warming is rapidly leading to climate collapse which may interrupt human cultural transmission.

I recently read David Orr’s book about climate collapse (a better description than global warming), Down to the Wire. He made a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is when you can realistically predict a good outcome, however uncertain. Hope is an attitude that keeps you working even when optimism is not a realistic possibility. He said that no rational person could give an optimistic assessment that the Earth is going to avoid climate collapse—that is, enough of a collapse to mess up human civilization. But we need to have hope, even if not optimism.

But as I read the book, it became clear that, if Orr is right, the only way we can avoid climate collapse is for everyone to do everything right, right now, even though we are doing almost nothing right, right now, in terms of reducing carbon emissions. No grounds for optimism here, and hope is a fantasy, even though it may be an essential one.

At the same time, I was reading Margaret Atwood’s novel of a dystopian future, Oryx and Crake. It was a future in which humans and most wild animals are nearly extinct, replaced by genetically engineered humanoids and animaloids, and a future with brutal global warming. (Atwood is the master of dystopias, of which The Handmaid’s Tale is the most famous.) She made the point that, in humans as in other intelligent animals, all it takes is for cultural transmission to be interrupted for a single generation, and the game is over forever—the most important aspects of human adaptation will be lost. Our bodies and our instincts, by themselves, will not get us very far. Climate collapse would not need to cause extinction; all it would have to do is to interrupt human culture for a generation.

Evolution will go on, the human species will persist in a physically recognizable form, but we now face the possibility of global cultural interruption.

A version of this essay will appear this fall on my website.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Nobody could ever accuse Tom Delay, former congressman from Texas, of humility. When he was House Majority Leader, he was called “The Hammer” because he used political pressure to get all Republicans to vote the same way. This made the Democrats in the House of Representatives pretty much irrelevant, even though they had a larger number of members than the Republican minority currently has. When he was asked to not smoke his cigar in a Washington, D.C. restaurant, because it was against federal law, he answered, “I am the federal government.” For a list of his other breathtakingly arrogant quotes, see his Wikipedia quote page. When Delay resigned over revelations of illegal campaign finance contributions, one would think that he would be a little contrite. But no. He decided that he was still such a celebrity that he could be the hero of Dancing with the Stars. Fractured feet prevented this arrogant dream from coming true.

Delay holds no esteem for anyone who disagrees with him. Despite his ethical lapses, he still holds himself up as a great beacon of morality. In this, he contrasts himself most sharply with those who accept an evolutionary explanation for the history of life on Earth. In 1999, he opined that one of the causes of school violence (such as the Columbine shootings) was that children are being taught in school that they “evolutionized” from slime. He made this statement with full confidence even though he knows practically nothing about evolutionary science or sociology. Truth, to Delay, is something to make up as you go along.

Delay considers that the human species is too noble to have evolved from slime. This is incorrect in two ways.

First, humans (especially those who act as Delay has) are not particularly noble.

Second, slime is not such a bad thing. Most slime consists of bacteria. There is an amazing diversity of bacteria all over the world and even deep into the Earth, and all of life is dependent upon what they do. Slime is one of the things that keep the Earth alive.
Not only that, but slime has something to teach us. A visible layer of slime (“biofilm” in science talk) is not just bacteria; it is bacteria that have produced a sticky material that holds them together. It is an example, in fact, of altruistic cooperation. Larger organisms that might eat individual bacteria cannot eat the ones that are protected inside of the slime. The bacteria produce, at considerable metabolic expense, a material that provides for their common defense. Even though bacteria are single, simple cells, they can form multi-cellular cooperative structures. Slime is, sometimes, more internally cooperative than groups of humans.
Slime, therefore, is a living critique of human arrogance.

A version of this essay appeared on my website on December 20, 2009.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Real World

The real world is the world of light, air, water, soil, and food. It is the world that trees and other plants create for us by producing oxygen and food, by enriching the soil and holding back floods. It is the world of ecology and evolution.

In contrast, the financial world is an artificial world. This fact has become apparent to those who thought that the real world just consisted of moving other people’s money around. Before the Collapse, James E. Cayne was a billionaire and the chairman of Bear Stearns. He lost $900 million of that in 2008. Noted New York Times’ Landon Thomas Jr. on March 28, 2008, “It represents a humiliating capitulation for a brash executive who, with his ever-present cigar, suspender-snapping ways and Friday golf outings…epitomized the classic, if outdated, picture of the Wall Street chieftain.” We have one of these bankers, right down to the cigar, where I live in Durant, Oklahoma. He just built a huge mansion that is a pastiche of every style smushed together; its only unifying theme is arrogance. He paid almost as much for his front door—not the whole porch, just the door—as I did for my house.

If you drive through rural Oklahoma towns, you will see all of the buildings run down, except, of course, the bank. Interest, or usury, is the best source of wealth today. But it is parasitic and unstable. Just ask Mr. Cayne, who now has to suffer with his remaining pittance of $61 million.

I don’t think Mr. Cayne has a clue about what the real world is. But I’ll tell you who does. Wangari Maathai is an African woman who has led millions of Kenyan women to plant trees, not instead of improving their economic lives but in order to improve their economic lives. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, the only environmentalist (and African woman) to have done so. But her Green Belt Movement was a major financial benefit—to the rural poor of Kenya. Now there is a woman who understands the real world.

We have to accept the reality of light, water, air, soil, and plants. We cannot create reality. George W. Bush said, “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” To me, this sounds like blasphemy.

The real world is bears, not teddy bears or Bear Stearns; and is green, not greenbacks.

A version of this essay appeared on my website on November 23, 2008.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Absurd Creativity

This essay was recycled from my website (November 21, 2009).

Absurd creativity—that is what evolution has. The pathways of evolution follow no course of deductive logic, to design organisms or ecosystems the way an engineer would. Evolution tries all kinds of things, some beautiful, some silly, some ordinary—and keeps the ones that work. There is no Designer/Engineer in control of the process; it just spreads out in a million directions and produces adaptations that are essentially unpredictable.

This was brought to my attention as I was writing the entry about reptiles for my upcoming Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. Like most of you, I just assumed that any legless reptile that slithered through the undergrowth was a snake. But this is not correct. There are about a dozen different lineages of partially or wholly legless lizards, which have evolved the same adaptation as snakes, but independently. Lizards have long tails, whereas most of a snake’s length is its body. “Glass snakes” are actually lizards, without legs, and with a long tail. They are called glass snakes because they can break off parts of their tails (like broken glass) to confuse a predator that is pursuing them. Real snakes cannot do this. Legless lizards are examples of evolutionary convergence, where different lineages of animals independently evolve the same adaptation.

One day about a billion years ago (seems like yesterday), the first plant cells got their chloroplasts. These are the green structures that make sunlight into food. It might really have just happened in one day. Photosynthetic bacteria invaded, or were consumed by, larger cells with nuclei. But instead of killing or dying, these bacteria took up residence inside the plant cell. It was a mutually beneficial relationship; the bacteria made food from sunlight, and the larger cell provided fertilizer and protection. The chloroplasts of plants are cells inside of cells. From this event, the red algae and the green algae separately evolved. Some of the green algae evolved into land plants.

But there were some other large cells that also consumed, or were invaded by, the red or green algae. And the red or green algal cells became the chloroplasts of what are today the brown algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and euglenas. (Brown algae are the large seaweeds.) That is, brown algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and euglenas have chloroplasts that are cells inside of cells inside of cells. The chloroplasts of dinoflagellates even have little degenerated nuclei inside of them! Just as legless reptiles evolved several times, so did chloroplasts.

The evolutionary process tries endless combinations of mutations and adaptations, resulting in a living world that has much more variety that is hidden than variety that is obvious.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cottonwood Investments

This essay appeared on my website on February 15, 2009.

How many of you would build a home out of cottonwood? I doubt that anybody would do this. This kind of wood is not strong. Although cottonwood trees grow tall and their trunks are large, they do not live very long. They live along creeks and rivers, where periodic floods turn trees into floating logs.

In contrast, most oak trees have very strong wood. Strong wood is more expensive for a tree to produce than is weak wood. Oaks live for centuries, and strong wood is a necessary investment, but it would be a wasted investment for a cottonwood, which would be probably be killed by a flood before a century has passed. Cottonwood trees follow the James Dean philosophy of life: live fast and die young. Oak trees grow slowly and live a long time. Both patterns of life are adaptations to their circumstances: the first to a temporary habitat, the second to a stable habitat.

Yet another approach to life is found in alder trees. Alders, like cottonwoods, live in streamside habitats where floods frequently destroy them. The 2007 floods in Oklahoma destroyed almost every alder tree that I could see. But alders produce numerous small trunks from a strong underground rootstock. Within a couple of months of the floods, nearly all of the alders had resprouted. An alder clump may persist for centuries, even though each of its trunks may live only for a few decades.

The near-collapse of the financial sector resulted from cheap investments that were not intended to last. For a brief time, these investments yielded immense profits to a few people, but failure was built into the system. Financial markets invested like cottonwoods. The problem is that a nation is supposed to survive for a long time, like a forest of oaks, not like a streamside with cottonwoods. If the United States intends to persist, the correct way to invest is for the long term.

In nature, cottonwoods cannot survive in oak forests. But on Wall Street, all of the biggest corporations followed the cottonwood type of investment and, in effect, forced it on the entire system. By investing in the short term, banks and other financial firms forced their environment to become unstable, and took billions of dollars down with them. Their approach to life turned a country, and a world, into a habitat that lives fast and dies young.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Conservatives and their Alternate Planet

Have you noticed that conservatives live on a different planet? This is nowhere more evident than in their response to global warming. They deny the reality of one of the best attested facts in human existence. And they bolster it with appeals to religion, making things up that are not even in their scriptures.

In fact, we are all living on a different planet. As Bill McKibben points out in his new book, Eaarth, we no longer live on the old, comfortable planet Earth, but on a planet (which he calls Eaarth) in which global warming and its consequences have already become the norm. Political and religious conservatives have not yet reconciled themselves with the reality of Earth, much less of Eaarth.

The events of this week illustrate the fact perfectly. Three events have occurred that, while ignored by many people, are hugely ominous for the future of our planet.

First, climate scientists have predicted that areas near the oceans would get more rainfall, and get it in the form of big storms. They intended this as a future prediction, but it is the major fact of reality right now in Pakistan, which is having the worst floods in its history.

Second, climate scientists have predicted that areas in the middle of continents would experience droughts and heat waves. This is happening right now in Russia, at the same moment that Pakistan is flooded. Russia had not experienced temperatures of 100 F during the time that reliable records have been kept, but they have had temperatures over 100 F for almost two weeks now. The result has been a massive drought, with the biggest outbreak of forest fires in their history.

Third, climate scientists have predicted interruptions in agricultural productivity and international trade in agricultural products. This has just happened, today. On August 5, 2010, Russia announced that it was banning grain exports for the rest of the year. Add this to the near collapse of Australian grain production, and the price of grain on the international market will get even higher—which will, of course, affect poor people the most. Most Americans may not notice, because we can afford to pay almost any price for food, or so we think.

There are three stages of conservative response to global warming. The first stage is to deny that it is happening. The second stage is to claim that it is happening but is not being influenced by human activity. They are already beginning this second stage. The third stage is to just say that, oh well, we can’t do anything about it so we might as well go ahead and burn all the oil we want to.

These three viewpoints all contradict one another, but conservatives can comfortably accommodate them, because evolution has given us brains capable of maintaining mutually contradictory thoughts. Science has given us a way to transcend the limitations of our ape brains, but conservatives appear in this case to have no use for science.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Evolution of Religion: What is Next?

Religion is not a single thing. It is a complex set of things. What form it will take in the human future depends on which of its components come to dominate it.

Religion consists of a set of doctrines, as well as spiritual feelings and experiences. Spirituality, based directly on human experiences, will probably continue forever. Our brains have experiences such as the following, which I listed in Chapter 7 of my forthcoming book, Life of Earth: ecstasy; loss of awareness of having a defined body; altruism; need for an authority figure; awareness of death; and belief that phenomena are caused by invisible persons. It is likely that each of these is caused by a particular brain function. They will never go away, except perhaps over a longer period of time than human civilization has yet existed; and we will probably always interpret them as spiritual experiences.

But the doctrines are memes. They are culturally transmitted. However unlikely it seems at the moment, these memes can die away quickly, over a very few generations. I do not expect many of them to die away, but I can at least hope that the more oppressive and destructive of them will become extinct. For example, the idea that God will send most people who have ever lived to a hell in which they will experience conscious eternal torture. This doctrinal belief makes people comfortable with the idea that it is acceptable to torture or harm other people. Another example: the idea that God has given our religious group the unique truth, and has not given it to anyone else. This doctrinal belief makes people comfortable with the idea that they can sweep aside other religious groups by whatever means necessary. The time for belief in God as Supreme Torturer and Dispenser of Unique Truth to Fundamentalists Who Can Enforce It (whether in Christian or Muslim garb) must end as speedily as possible. We should oppose these ideas vigorously and without interruption for as long as it takes to ensure their memetic extinction. One of the best ways to do this is just to educate people—about evolution and about the brain chemistry basis of our thoughts, for example.

And when we do so, should we happen to succeed at some point long after my life is over, what will we have? Perhaps, primarily, we will have spirituality—people who worship God by feeling the inspiration of nature and by living by the Golden Rule. People who think and act the way Jesus did when he was out in the hills. The component of religion that makes people better, not worse. This may be impossible, but it is a future worth working for.

Friday, July 23, 2010

It's A Miracle!

This essay is a follow-up to the previous one, about Occam’s razor. Here is an example of a complicated spiritual explanation for something that does not really exist—the ability of a piece of wood to influence the course of events in life. Even within the realm of spiritual assumptions, it is a convoluted piece of reasoning that defies Occam’s razor. It is something that, when the ancient pagans of the Middle East did it, the prophet Isaiah denounced it. Isaiah said, you take a piece of wood, make half of it into an idol and burn the other half in the fireplace—so how can the wood be a god? The reasoning is flawed but it is a commendable ancient attempt to test spiritual assertions by hypothesis testing.

“Occam’s razor” is a philosophical position, attributed to medieval theologian William of Occam (Ockham). It is that the simplest explanation that fits all of the facts is the one that should be accepted. He applied it to theology, but it works in all areas of study. It is one of the foundational assumptions of science.

Religious people have, for the past few centuries, abandoned William of Occam’s theological premise. The reason is that science has steadily put physical explanations of nature in place of spiritual ones. At first it was that the Earth goes around the Sun. Then it was the idea that gravity and momentum, not angels, propelled the planets in their orbits. A few simple Newtonian equations explained as much as a multitude of angels.

One of the biggest examples of a simple natural explanation replacing a complex theological story is, of course, evolution. At the time of William Paley, every species was seen as not only a special creation by God but as evidence that God was good. Even mosquitoes. Evolution replaced “natural theology” largely because one, single explanation—natural selection—replaced thousands of separate acts of design and creation. Why does each species exist? In Paley’s time, each species had its own reason. Ever since Darwin, there has been only one reason: evolution.

But evolution is far from being the only example. If I were a fundamentalist, I would be a lot more worried about psychology than about evolution. Scientists have now explained nearly everything that happens in our “minds” and “hearts” as a physical or chemical process that occurs within our brains. This applies even to the most intense religious experiences (see the earlier essay about the Near Death experience.) Now, we know that these processes, involving neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, and genes occur. In order to believe that a person has a spirit that thinks and feels, you have to believe that this spirit exactly mirrors, in every detail, the functions of the brain. You have to create, without evidence, an imaginary shadow of the brain. Occam’s razor says that, if the brain explains everything, there is no need to invent a spirit that is just a duplicate of the brain.

Occam’s razor, a philosophical position invented by a theologian, has now turned against theology.

Well, here is my story.

I walked into a dark restroom and the lights suddenly came on. It must have been a miracle! Anyplace else and I would have assumed it was a motion detector. But I was in no ordinary place. I was at the Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague. This shrine is an example of how convoluted religious reasoning can become. I have to start at the beginning.

In the late middle ages, there was a wooden statue of a baby boy with royal garments, a crown, and holding a sceptre and globe of the world. To my knowledge, Jesus never did this, at least when he was a child. But this statue was reputed to have special powers if you made offerings to it. After various adventures, the statue ended up in Prague (now in the Czech Republic). Meanwhile, there was a Catholic priest from Prague, Oklahoma who somehow ended up with a replica (souvenir copy) of the original statue. He apparently thought that there was some significance in his town in Oklahoma having the same name as the European city, and before you knew it, the replica statue was reputed to have special powers if you made offerings to it.

So here is the line of causation that comes into play if you visit this Oklahoma shrine. 1. Stick some money in a hole at the shrine. 2. The souvenir copy statue projects spiritual energy across the Atlantic to the European statue. 3. The European statue has some influence on the Virgin Mary. 4. The Virgin Mary is obligated to tell her Son to answer your prayer. 5. Jesus is more likely to answer your prayer this way than if you just asked him directly.

Wow. All this was happening less than twenty miles from where I was born, and I knew nothing about it until I was 52.

I considered my options. Nobody was around except the woman in the office behind the gift shop. First, I considered telling her that I had walked all the way from California (on my knees? no; backward? no) just to venerate the statue. But it was obvious that I had not been outdoors that much. Second, I considered using my fake eastern European accent which I learned from Boris and Natasha and saying I was from the shrine of the original statue and wanted to inspect it. But I realized that I did not know the secret catatonic handshake (if I remember correctly, this is the Catholic version of the secret Masonic handshake that my Dad never taught me) and my imposture would be revealed. Third, I considered proposing a statistical study to determine whether offerings to the statue actually increased the chances of having a prayer answered, as in the Benson heart study. But I didn’t do any of these things. I just went home and wrote this.