Thursday, January 28, 2016

How Conventional Religion Subordinates Women Even When It Doesn’t Mean To

I have written numerous entries about the bad things that religion can bring upon the human mind and the human experience. I have never done so, as some bloggers have done, in a spirit of contempt or ridicule. I have a background of religious fundamentalism, and when I write negative things about religion it is because I yearn for people who are still within the confines of doctrinal religion to be able to escape from it. For those of you, if any are reading this, who are still bound within the shackles of doctrinal religion (as opposed to spiritual sensibilities and feelings), I really care about you. I fear that you are missing out on anything good that religion might have to offer, as I did for so long.

One of the bad effects of doctrinal religion that I have noticed, especially here in rural Oklahoma, is that it plunges women into a position of inferiority. I’ll bet you’ve never heard that one before. Right. Whether it is overt, as in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, or unspoken, as in conventional Christianity and Islam, women are encouraged to think of themselves as servants rather than leaders.

You knew that already, of course. I just want to tell you what I have directly observed. I have lost count of the number of brilliant and promising female students that I have had who end up dropping out of their professional or graduate programs and becoming more or less domestic servants. And religion plays a role in this, if only because religion pervades the culture from which these women briefly began to emerge. They are not forced to do so by their male partners; I have seen the husbands of these women interrupt their own careers to support their wives in medical school. But these women have grown up feeling more comfortable in the position of servant than in the position of leader. Adam was the leader, and Eve the “help-meet,” and nothing but trouble came from Eve thinking for herself. Religion, even if it does not prescribe a subordinate role for women, feathers the beds that make women feel comfortable at home rather than in the workplace.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Floating Gardens of Science

I think it was 1978. I was a junior environmental biology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). I was just beginning to understand, from my classes, the many ways in which organisms, particularly plants, interacted with one another in the vast network of life. For example, I was just beginning to learn about rain shadows and biogeography, and how they produced the patchwork of vegetation types in California.

It was the golden age of environmental education at the University of California. I studied plant ecology with Dr. Bill Schlesinger, who is now PresidentEmeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies but back then he was a new assistant professor. I studied general ecology with Dr. Joe Connell, who is now retired but who was a world leader in understanding the basic framework of ecology and who designed ingenious experiments. I took a course called Plants of California from Dr. Bob Haller, back when there was enough money in the budget for us to take long, expensive, and astonishing field trips. I also became acquainted with Dr. Cornelius Muller, who was a world expert on oak trees (though I did not know it at the time), especially the rare species of oaks stranded on top of desert mountains; and he was an early proponent of allelopathy (plants poisoning one another) as an important process in ecosystems. Though retired, Muller came to his office every day in his tweed jacket, white shirt, and red bowtie. I studied briefly with the eminent plant anatomist Maynard Moseley, and must have seen the other great plant anatomist, Katherine Esau, walking around the halls, without knowing who she was. Somehow I missed the famous human ecologist Garrett Hardin and the parasitologist Armand Kuris. What a place to be!

And I was just beginning to attend scientific presentations. They were mostly over my head, since the audience was mostly professional scientists. Indeed, when I attended my first scientific meeting (Ecological Society of America at Oklahoma State University in 1979) I was pretty lost. But one of the first presentations I attended at UCSB was by Dr. Steve Gliessman, who had been a graduate student of Cornelius Muller. At the time, I thought ecology was something that happened out “in nature,” such as the chaparral on the mountains behind Santa Barbara. It had not yet occurred to me that farms and cities can be ecosystems, something that an urban ecologist such as Steward T. A . Pickett would be able to explain to you. I was expecting Gliesman to talk about wild trees or shrubs or grasses. But instead he talked about his research in the floating gardens of Mexico.

These chinampa floating gardens are not actually floating but are artificial islands with canals between them. The Nahuatl people had to create their own artificial ecosystems in order to grow crops in the bottom of a shallow lake. Without knowing anything about what we call science, the Nahuatl people used the principles of ecology to create a food production system that was very effective and sustainable. Because of the continuous water supply and mild climate, a chinampa could produce seven harvests a year.

It was partly from this very early experience, hearing about Gliesman’swork, that I developed my way of looking at the world that has never left me: science is a way of helping people live on this planet. Science is not a diversion for scientists, but an essential way of helping the world. I have never forgotten this, in any book I have written or any class I have taught.

And finally this idea has caught on in lots of places. Back when I studied music theory at UCSB in the late 1970s, art in general and music in particular was a pursuit totally (as far as I could tell) disconnected from anything useful. The kind of music a lot of people wrote back then was incomprehensible, and if you expected to actually like it, that shows how little you know. But today, artists want to be relevant. The slogan for the National Endowment for the Arts is, “Art works.”

We, the scientists and other scholars, are the servants of our fellow humans and our Earth. Or at least we ought to be. I will not forget this. Thanks, Steve.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Never Give Up

I just wanted to share a series of experiences I have had as a science educator. You may never find yourself in a position to do this. I did not seek this opportunity, but have been satisfied that it came.

For almost a decade, I have been exchanging occasional letters with a prisoner in California. He apparently read a book review that I wrote for the National Center for Science Education. I wrote about him a couple of years ago in this blog. I just wanted to mention again that if you have an opportunity to help someone in this way, do it. There are too many prisoners in the world to seek any out, but if one of them writes to you, you may find it rewarding to help them.

A couple of years ago I sent this man a paperback biology textbook that I had received unsolicited from a publisher, back when publishers sent out review copies to professors. He has been studying this book more closely than, I believe, any of my students ever have. He wrote, “The book is challenging. I did the [multiple choice questions] and I missed four out of eight. I grade myself at a C-. I never give myself an F or sometimes a D. Because I figure like this, the only time I should fail is when I do not even try.” Isn’t this an encouraging attitude?

I never asked him what he was in for; none of my business. He’s been in a long time. But how could I say no to someone who has such a desire to learn? He gets no encouragement from his fellow prisoners or from the prison officials, as far as I can tell. We call our prisons penitentiaries, as if they are supposed to make prisoners penitent, and we like to think we are reforming the prisoners. But prison officials have their hands full just keeping themselves alive and, sometimes, keeping the prisoners alive too. The only hope some of them have is to get some encouragement from people like us.

In his most recent letter, this man said he was making flash cards for studying biology.  He noted that some other prisoners were taking college courses and earning degrees, but in talking with them he discovered they did not remember what they had learned. He noted that they have “towering egos.” “I feel that it is better to know a little about something, than to think you know a lot about everything, when in actuality you find that you do not know as much as your inflated ego has led you to believe. For me, it is an honor to say I do not know something when I really do not know.”

I just wrote back to encourage him.

“I am happy that you wrote to me again. We have been in contact a long time. I am glad that you are still studying biology and have not given up. It is a difficult subject and I commend you for sticking with it.

“And it is a rapidly changing subject. The pace of biological knowledge is moving faster and faster. I certainly can’t keep up with it, and maybe nobody can. The technical knowledge is racing ahead faster than our ethical thoughts can handle it. This is especially true of recent advances in genetic engineering (altering the genes of microbes, plants, and animals, but not yet people). It is now easy and cheap to do genetic engineering. But our society has not yet thought about what we should do, and what we should not do. We don’t know. And the top scientists are the first ones to admit, openly, that there is a great deal they do not know. You said that you are happy to admit that you don’t know something. I think this is a good attitude. I and many other scientists are very aware that there is a vast number of things that we do not know. So your attitude is a good one to have. If we don’t admit our own ignorance, we simply stride forward into making mistakes.

“Keep thinking and reading. You probably keep a notebook for yourself too. And feel free to write again any time.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Another Failure of Religion

One of the most spectacular failures of creationism—indeed, of theistic evolution, or any kind of religious explanation of the world—is the inability to explain human nature and human instincts.

The monotheistic religions, which trace human nature back to the Garden of Eden, present the following explanation for what human nature is like. God created Adam and Eve as almost perfect people. They were adapted, physically and mentally, to living in a garden where all their physical needs were met. I say almost perfect because, according to the most conservative literalists, there were two problems. One was that Eve was gullible, and the other was that Adam had this tendency to do what his wife told him to do. So when the serpent told Eve to eat the apple, she just couldn’t resist. Sort of the primordial version of the irresistible expensive handbag, I suppose. It was therefore really her fault that Adam ate the apple; he trusted his wife too much. And from that point forward, human nature has been primarily evil. Sometimes more evil, as with Cain, and sometimes less, as with Abel.Sometimes more, as with Nimrod, and sometimes less, as with Noah. But even the good people had flaws, such as Noah getting drunk. And even evil people have a deep yearning to go back to the garden. Therefore, from a conservative religious viewpoint, human nature is a complex mixture of good and evil.But what kinds of good and what kinds of evil? Religion gives us no way to understand this.

But evolution presents a different picture. Science reveals humans as an evolutionary product of cave-man days. Our bodies and minds are adapted to prehistory, to a time before agriculture, to a time when the availability of food was unpredictable; when we had to run a lot to catch prey or to keep from becoming prey; when we had to be constantly aware of danger; when the only way to survive was to fight our enemies and form intimate alliances with our friends; when the way to evolutionary success was to stop at nothing to leave as many offspring as possible.

We have numerous adaptations to these particular prehistoric conditions. We have strong appetites, which make us eat as much food as we can when it is available, and to store what we do not use as fat; we crave salt so that we can sweat a lot when we get hot; we have a strong sense of awareness of the world around us, which makes us suspicious of every little movement; we are both honest and deceitful; and we have an overwhelming craving for sex. We hate and we lust and we love more strongly than logic could possibly dictate. That is, human instinct is a complex mixture of gluttony, craving, suspicion, lust, hatred, and love. And there is an evolutionary reason for each of these instincts.

Many of the problems that we have today result from the fact that our bodies and minds still work in prehistoric ways, even though these adaptations are now dangerous. Gluttony, with its attendant medical problems, results from our bodies preparing themselves for a famine that never comes, and makes us fat and diabetic; craving for salt so that we can sweat while we run away from non-existent predators now gives us high blood pressure. Anxiety and worry result from focusing on dangers that modern society has largely eliminated, and finding new things to worry about, giving us mental problems that cavemen probably did not have. Today we could get by on altruism and honesty alone, but we still have the habit of violence and deceit. And the things that cavemen had to do to get a mate would land us in jail today.

According to religion, sin is just random bad stuff that happens to be against the will of God. And righteousness is random good stuff that happens to meet God’s approval. We pursue sin because the devil makes us do it. But according to evolutionary science, both what we call sin and what we call righteousness evolved during cave man days.

Both conservative religion and evolution explain human nature as a complex mixture of good and evil. But only evolution gives specific explanations. Evolution gives specific explanations of why humans have gluttony, cravings, anxieties, and violence. If you ask a religious person why we are tempted by gluttony, he or she can give no explanation.  Why do our brains make us crave rich food and sugar and salt? Are these just arbitrary temptations that God has imposed on us as punishment for Eve sweet-talking Adam into eating the apple? And why are we almost crazy with sexual desires? Religious people can only tell us that the devil makes us do it.

According to traditional religion, the cave man days never existed. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, they did not have to stuff their faces with food, because the Garden had no food shortages; they did not have to crave salt, or be paranoid, because there were no wild beasts to run away from; they certainly did not need a sex drive strong enough to fight off competitors, because they were literally the only people in the world. Then, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, almost immediately there was agriculture and herding (Cain and Abel, respectively). Humans went straight from sinlessness into civilization. In Biblical chronology, there is no period during which gluttony, cravings, paranoia, and sex drive would have been adaptive. These instincts went straight from being nonexistent to being unnecessary.

Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart is evil and desperately corrupt, and that only God can understand it. So there. Just give up and don’t try to understand it.

There can be no religious basis for explaining why we get sick and why we have mental problems. But there are detailed evolutionary reasons for these things. And that explanation is that ninety percent of the time Homo sapiens has existed has been in a cave-man environment, the existence of which religion denies.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Some of you have heard of, and some of you may remember that song, from back in the hippie days. That was a very unusual time in American history, when it actually seemed possible that the world would change for the better. And many things did: The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act all emerged in the early 1970s. It was a time when idealism seemed to have a chance.

I recently found a book from that time: The Greening of America, by Charles A. Reich, a law professor at Yale, originally published in 1970.  Reich was inspired by the student activists he saw at Yale and around the country. And he dared to think that they were going to change the world. His book predicted a new future rather than prescribing one. He considered this new green future to be inevitable.

Right on the cover of the paperback is this quote: “There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture…It will not require violence to succeed, and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence. This is the revolution of the new generation.” The book quotes, on its frontispiece, Chet Powers and the Youngbloods: Come on people now, Smile on your brother, Everybody get together, Try to love one another right now. Reich thought that this was actually happening and, indeed, could not be stopped.

The protest and rebellion of the new generation, “their culture, clothes, music, drugs, ways of thought and liberated life-style are not a passing fad…The whole emerging pattern, from ideals to campus demonstrations to beads and bell bottoms to the Woodstock Festival…is both necessary and inevitable, and in time it will include not only youth, but all people in America.” It was, Reich thought, the inevitable progress through three stages: Consciousness I, Consciousness II, and Consciousness III.

Well, it didn’t happen. Today, there is virtually no idealism in any aspect of our public lives. The gap between the rich and the poor, the politically powerful and the politically irrelevant, is much greater now than it was then. We have pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that our future political direction will be determined by corporate interests and the Religious Right. Despite the brief flowering of the Occupy movement a couple of years ago, there is an overwhelming resignation to the idea that big corporations will do whatever they want (they are TBTF), and that politicians will listen only to major donors, and that the working poor will need two jobs just to stay alive and are lucky to have one job. As I write, armed protestors have taken over a wildlife refuge building in Oregon, and are being treated with kindness by local law enforcement, quite in contrast to the attacks made upon the unarmed Occupy protestors. If you are an angry white Republican, all of your views are treated as significant, and you can brandish your guns with impunity; if you are not, just keep quiet, and certainly do not show your guns, if you have them.

Considering the theme of this blog, I must point out that scientific truth seems to have no importance at all in the direction our society is taking. Angry white Republicans get to impose their beliefs as truth. But back in the sixties, there were “teach-ins” in which the idealistic youth wanted to know as much as they could about the world. This sort of thing is unthinkable today.

I’m not saying the hippies were right about everything. But it is unspeakably sad to see that their idealism is extinct.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Creationist Says that God is Deliberately Deceptive

Let's get the new year started off right, shall we? By deciding whether young-earth creationists are infallible and inerrant, or merely human.

If young-earth creationists are totally infallible and inerrant, then we must believe anything they say, no matter what. They are the ones whom God has uniquely chosen to tell us which parts of the Bible to believe and which to not believe. God has given them the keys to Heaven to decide who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. Hell, obviously, is reserved for anyone who does not believe everything a young-earth creationist says. This sounds a little bit like blasphemy, creationists putting themselves in the place of God, but they refuse to admit this.

They claim to use the Bible, simply and literally interpreted, as their authority. But creationist evangelist Kent Hovind, who has been in prison for tax evasion (he apparently considered himself a citizen of heaven and therefore not owing federal taxes), claimed that God deliberately inserted errors into the Bible in order to weed out atheists. He made this claim in a video posted last December 28.

Our faith in what? There are lots of religious people who believe in God, but admit that the Bible contains errors, because it was written by humans who were simply doing the best they could to understand God but sometimes didn't get it right. Hovind was not referring to them. What he meant was, God put errors into the Bible to weed out those people who were not willing to accept Hovind as the inerrant communicator of truth. By putting mistakes into the Bible, God is weeding out those who worship Hovind from those who do not.

Conservative Christians, and the politicians who serve them, are so convinced of their own godliness that they cannot conceive that God would ever allow them to be wrong. If they think it, then it must be God's Very Truth even if it contradicts the Bible. To them, you might as well be an atheist if you disagree with even one thing they assert.

It looks like 2016, an election year in which creationists will identify God with the Republican Party, will be one in which there is no reason or evidence, even about the Bible. It will simply be a year in which fundamentalist Christians declare anyone who disagrees with them on any point to be a heretic. And we all know what people who are convinced that they are God's unique people can do to those whom they consider to be heretics. Don't bother asking them for any Biblical reasons for their beliefs. They jettisoned that requirement a long time ago.