Evolution Devolution

155,615 words in something called Origin of Species.

Of those words, “evolve” is mentioned only once.  You heard it right.

As for “evolution” or “evolving” or some other variant, zip.  Nada.  Nothing.

Isn’t that funny?

Now, the word “variation” comes up 188 times.

And the word “selection” comes up 414 times.

Here’s the reason why.

As a methodical man, Charles Robert Darwin was most interested in convincing lots of good, smart people, in this radical idea that the thing we call “species” was changing over time.

CRD also knew that a lot of those same people were big on the Big Guy, the big light in the sky, the ultimate authority, GOD.

CRD had no interest in taking on religion, that wasn’t his aim.  His only goal was to show people that species weren’t sitting still.  Some species had walked the Earth long ago and disappeared.  That implied that new species were being created.  CRD had to figure out how to show people what he’d learned.

Law of Nature Number One: Each one of your children is different.  And attached to this law is another: Each of your children is different from all other children.  It’s another way of saying all of us are unique.  Even identical twins stop being identical the moment they are born.

Any problems with this?  Do you disagree?  Then check out a worm, and another worm.  If you look long enough you will see differences.  That’s a Law of Nature.

Law of Nature Number Two: Some differences help you have more babies.  Do you know any couples who have trouble making kids?  What about race horses?  The owners of famous stallions who win big races make lots of money selling that horses baby-making bits.  As long as horse racing is a big sport, there’s a good chance lots of fast-horse babies are going to be born.

Any problems with number two?  If not, we’re ready for the big finale.

Putting both of these Laws of Nature together creates a process of change.  Every individual is unique.  Every individual has a different number of babies.  And so on.

Biologists thought they were doing everyone a favor long ago when they applied the term “evolution” to the process.  It seems harmless enough.  What they didn’t realize was that they were making it harder for us non-biologists to follow along.  Bad marketing.

As a result, we have arguments with GOD over whether or not evolution exists.  Here’s the funny thing.  Evolution doesn’t exist, just like “falling” doesn’t exist.  Falling is a process of being up, and then suddenly being down.  We don’t have schools teaching “falling” as a subject.  Instead we have physics and gymnastics.

Similarly, we shouldn’t be teaching evolution in school.  We must stick to the laws of nature: we’re all unique, and we’re all going to have different numbers of children.

That’s a horse you shouldn’t bet against.

 

 

Religion. Defined.

Fasten your seat belt, this is going to be a fun one.

It wouldn’t be necessary except for two things.

One: There is a lot of religion-tossing going on with our politicians, as they use it to get elected, and also use it to justify their ongoing war with “terrorism” and religious zealots.

Two: We don’t agree on what religion is.  This wouldn’t be a problem if every culture on Earth would simply sacrifice a bowl of leaves (in season, sprinkled with olive oil and salt) on the altar of the Earth Mother.  Preferably only upon the rising of the full moon.

So, because of number one, and because we DON’T do number two, we have to do number three.

Three: Religion is.

It’s a start, isn’t it?  You see, that’s the problem.  There is no good definition of religion.  I’m going to give one before the end, but it won’t create universal agreement, let alone happiness.  But it’ll work for our purposes.

As a young human, chances are you were exposed to some kind of religion.  Do this on a certain day.  Dress up.  Act nice.  Say these words.  Meet with all these strangers and chant.  Sacrifice this goat.

Well, maybe not that last item.  Animal sacrifice went out of fashion some time ago.  Mostly.

However, that’s the point.  Our practical application of “religion” has changed, because we as a species have changed.

A good definition isn’t going to change.  We invented religion, and it has stayed with us for a long time.  Therefore it must be good for something.  Perhaps if we ponder its positives, we can define it more easily.

Religion is good for:

  • managing and leading groups of people, even very large groups;
  • helping “young” minds comprehend their place in the kosmos;
  • maintaining behaviors (a culture) ensuring group survival.

That should be enough for our purposes.  You’ll find that when you add more, it really becomes part of one of these big three benefits.

So, what’s the definition?

Religion is:

The explicit expression of a set of behaviors that keep an individual as part of a group.

Now for some explaining.  Notice there is nothing in the definition about one or more deities, a higher power, an afterlife, a pre-life, or anything about buildings or prophets.  Nothing.  That’s because some religions don’t have these things.  Yet people belong and worship and propagate their set of behaviors.  They have religion.  It just doesn’t look like yours, or mine.

There is nothing about managing the group, or leading it using priests, mullahs, or rabbis.  Because not all religions have these administrative components.  There’s a good chance that any priesthood, by any name, arose out of necessity.  Like symbiotic parasites, they continue to infect any major religion with the few benefits they provide.  Let’s face it, they can also be the cause of many of the abuses we currently see.

Finally, nothing in my definition says anything about long term survival.  It doesn’t have to, the religion takes care of that for me.  If the set of behaviors don’t account for current selective forces, then that religion won’t be along very long.  It’s okay, this happens.  Today’s current count of judeo-christian religions is somewhere in the thousands.  This includes all the variants of islam, for you islamaphobes out there.  Yes, it’s a modern religion based on the same precepts as Christianity.  Get over it.

And out of the many thousands of religions practiced today, I’m confident that many more have come and already gone through the ages.  It’s how we as people handle things in the natural world.

So there you have it.  Religion is expressed behaviors keeping YOU (or any individual) part of a group.

This means that your social club is a kind of religion.  This means your academic department or university class is a kind of religion.

It also means that sacrificing that bowl of leaves to the tree goddess is also a religion; as long as you aren’t doing it all by yourself.

That would be weird.

Comments?

 

Earth Stands Still Day 3

There were several elements in the classic sci-fi movie that were made due to censorship.  The movie is The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it’s from 1951.

One of those elements was the fact that the great robot servant of Klaatu brought him back to life.  Klaatu tells the young woman that the ability to create life is limited to the Almighty Creator – God of course.  Censors of the time were sensitive to the fact that most Americans are God oriented, and suggesting that something else could create life itself would be blasphemy.

SPOILER ALERT!

If you haven’t read the original story, do it now.  Because here comes the punch.

Klaatu was the servant.  The “robot” Gort was the master.  Creating life was just another thing that Gort could do.  In fact, he was able to create life using a voice print.  And if that seems far-fetched, think about the fact that today’s forensic investigators can finger a perp using a drop of bodily fluid or a shadow on a video camera.

The original story is great science fiction because it pushes up against our envelope of understanding.  Why do we think life is so special, so unique that it can’t be created in a lab?  In fact, that’s exactly what Gort does on his space ship.  He builds a lab so that he can recreate the murdered Klaatu.

The insights of this fictional story are far deeper than this.  As behavioral scientists, we must first wrestle with the fundamental question of where humanity sits within the natural universe.  If we are somehow distinct from the universe, imbued with supernatural qualities that no current understanding can ever penetrate, then all our attempts to better our nature will fail.

On the other hand, if we admit that our lives as humans are fundamentally the same as all other life on this planet, and that being of nature, we are also confined to the same natural laws, then there is a chance we can use the tools of science to create laws and theories of behavior that will improve our chances of survival into the far future.

I love the original story because it forces us to face that question.  I’m frustrated by the censors, and by the movie producers, because Harry Bates’s original insights have been suppressed.  If I am successful enough, and live long enough, I’m going to correct that omission.

Thanks for reading.

 

Brilliant Suffering

I finished Larry Brilliant’s autobiography today, and enjoyed it immensely.  If you read his book, you know what I mean and can skip the remainder of this paragraph.  If you haven’t read this, I recommend it highly.  His life truly begins as he joins the love of his life in pursuit of the meaning of life.  Germinating at the feet of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, nourished by the Summer of Love and hardened by the abuses of that era, Larry becomes a radical doctor helping those no matter who they are.  His soul-mate decides their shared paths go through India, and to India they go in pursuit of enlightenment.  Guru Maharaji determines that Larry’s dharma lies in helping others, and that his karma yoga is through work.  The ultimate prize is eliminating killer smallpox, a disease that killed over half a billion people in the 20th century alone.  That’s more than all the wars and famines and tragedies all put together.  The adventures, the successes, and the failures are enjoyable told and hold many lessons.

Larry asks the ultimate question that every compassionate soul has asked through the ages: Why does suffering exist?  He typically pondered this while holding the body of a dead child.  I am going to answer this question in terms that rely on what we know of biology and ecosystems and philosophy.  I’m going to keep it as short as possible, so that much detail may be lacking.  And I’m going to answer it in such a way so that it addresses a related question: What is the best way to relieve suffering in the world in the long term?  Most recently, Jeff Bezos has asked this question, inviting his twitter followers to submit their suggestions as to how he focuses his charity.

However, neither Larry Brilliant or Jeff Bezos, or even most people are going to like the answer here.  For the truth is raw and uncompromising, much as Mother Nature shows Herself to be when in her full glory.  We tend to forget that to Mother Nature, all forms of life and death and joy and suffering, are all aspects of a single existence.

Moreover, when you look closely at the holiest of all holy texts in every religion, you see that they agree on that fundamental truth.  Life and death, joy and suffering, are all part of the same thing.  You can’t have one without the other.  A Tibetan monk explains to Larry, when he asks the question yet again, that suffering will always be part of the human condition as long as ignorance and obsession exist.  In the same scene, Larry is blessed for the simple fact that he is fighting a great scourge of humanity, and to alleviate any suffering is an act to strive for.

This is not an argument against charity, but an answer to the question “How can I be most charitable?”  At the same time, I hope to explain why suffering exists in any form, and why our best charitable efforts may in fact not appear to be charity.

Suffering may come from many sources, from outside ourselves, but also within.  We generally agree that some suffering is good for the soul, for it makes us tougher, makes us more willing to take risks.  But when is suffering too much?  Who is to decide?

Nature decides, using the most fundamental rules possible: life and death.  When she unleashed smallpox upon humanity, a third of its victims would die a gruesome and painful death.  Another third would be permanently handicapped.  The remaining third?  Survivors.

Now that we have eliminated smallpox, we will not know what made those survivors different from the rest.  What kind of world would this be if smallpox still existed?  Would it be a better world?  We simply don’t know.

And that’s the point.  For those of you who are spiritual and wish to second guess God, you can feel angry about the death of an innocent baby to such a gruesome disease.  But if God is playing the game for all of humanity, and not only that one baby or her family, then who are we to be critical?

Suffering exists, and we must learn from it.  As long as ignorance exists there will be suffering.  Such is the wheel of life.  No matter what your religion or how you talk to your God, fundamentally they all say the same thing.  Sub ek, all one.

Which brings us to the final point, how then do we best spend our precious charitable resources?  If you are moved to help someone read a book, buy groceries, or weed their garden, then you should.  However, if you have access to billions more resources, then consider this.  You should be pushing mankind further, higher, faster.  For Jeff Bezos, every last bit of his energy should be directed to making his dream of colonizing space a reality.  Spending even a few moments on any other endeavor may make him more popular, but only increases the risk of getting humanity off the ground.

Improving humanity means greater knowledge, and that automatically means less suffering.  It’s not the same thing as putting silver into a beggar’s hand, but it is far more lasting.

Namaskar

 

May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they never be disassociated from the supreme happiness which is without suffering.
May they remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to close ones and rejection of others.

 

Boo. You.

Boo!

Not scared?  You will be, by the end of this story.

YOU should be scared because this is all about you.  It’s all about WHO YOU ARE.

You see, once you know who you are, you will also know who you aren’t.

Let’s start off easy.  And since this is Halloween, let’s start off imagining that you are chained to a classic rack of the Inquisition.  Scared yet?

First off, as your Inquisitor, I will clip your long fingernails.  Now I’ll give you a nice manicure.  Look at those fingernail clippings.  Are they you?  Are you they?

Of course not!  You are not your fingernail clippings!  You don’t care if they go or come, do you?  And look at how nice your fingernails look!

Is the nail polish dry?  Good.  Let’s go to step two.  I’m now pulling out all your fingernails.  The whole thing.  Don’t worry.  It won’t hurt.  Much.  I’ll wait for the crying to stop before we continue.

Now, here are your fingernails in a box.  Here are your fingers, without any nails.  A bit bloody, but that will heal.  Are YOU still YOU?  Probably.  People will recognize you.  You can sign your name on checks and play with your smart phone.

Can you guess what step three is?  Step four?  Do I need to elaborate?  I hope not.  If I remove your hands, your feet, your arms, your legs, and so on, when do you stop being you?  If you were to be deprived of everything except your brain, and if we knew how to keep your brain alive and even still be able to communicate with you, would that be you?

A story was written a long time ago about this very sort of thought experiment, called “Johnny got his gun.”  It was meant to be a statement against war, but it serves equally well as a question about where YOU end, and the rest of your body begins.

The next time you’re clipping your fingernails, think about what would happen if the nail clippers suddenly became possessed and began clipping away at your body, out of control.  At what point would they have stopped clipping body, and started clipping you?

Boo!

 

You want to study what?

The guidance counselor screwed his face into a Picasso print.

Behavior,” I said.

There is no such major.  How about psychology?

Sure, sounds good.  Does psychology study organizations?”

Sure, there’s Industrial Organizational Psychology, and Organizational Behavior.

Great, and do they teach you how to lead people?”

No.  For that there’s Business.  And maybe Military Science.

That sounds good too.  Does they also teach what’s best for the nation?”

No, not necessarily, that would be Political Science, or maybe Philosophy.  You could study those.

Great!  Do they emphasize history, and other cultures?”

Not so much.  You could study History.

But what of also studying other cultures, both those that still exist today, and those that are extinct?”

Well, for those you could use some Anthropology, Archaeology, and maybe some Ethnology for variety.

“Now you’re talking!  And will those disciplines help me understand the big picture, the grand forces that help define success versus failure, growth versus death?”

That’s a tall order.  No, for that you should get into economics.  Yes, you’d make a great economist.

That’s pretty cool.  I’d like to be an economist.  They get to be on TV all the time.  Do economists also deal with what makes people really care about?  Things like the meaning of life, where we come from, what this all means?  You know, like what happens when we die, that sort of stuff?”

Well, no, for that you should really be studying Religion.  You could become a priest, or rabbi, or mullah.

I’m okay with that, too.  After all, people give you lots of stuff.  But will I also be able to study all the rules that people should live by in order to always be safe, respectful, and kind to each other?  Are there enough religious rules to make everybody always kind to each other?”

Not quite.  For that you’re probably going to have to study Law.  Yes, the law is all about the rules that govern how we deal with each other.  Yes, I can definitely see you as a lawyer.

Nice.  My father always wanted me to be a lawyer.  Maybe I could be a great trial lawyer.  Yeah, I’ll be a prosecutor and take on creeps!”

The counselor looked at me with a sigh of relief.

Good, I’ll put you down for trial law, he said.

He started typing away, but was thinking aloud…

First, you should start learning psychology…

 

 

How much is YOUR holiday worth?

Do you have a day of rest and religious observance?  How about an important holiday?  No, Valentines and Halloween don’t count.  I’m referring to the big old holidays, like Easter, Christmas, Yom Kippur, Ramadan, things like that.  The stuff that is observed by billions of people.  Holidays that were around BEFORE there was a greeting card industry.  Wait a minute, WAS there a BEFORE time for greeting cards?

Anyway, your holiday.  Your day of rest.  How much is it worth to you?  How much to give it up?  Would you take credit?

We all have a price for everything.  Some of us hold ideals that we’re willing to give our lives for.  But even our lives have a price tag associated with them.  And if you’re willing to average out these values across society, it becomes even easier to figure out.  Let’s take Easter and Pesach (Passover), since we just observed them a few weeks ago.

We know families get together, but how far are they willing to travel?  On average, if a family member is too far away they won’t come to dinner.  If they are close, they come.  That distance costs something to travel, and that’s part of the value.

Some people have jobs that don’t let them follow a normal schedule.  So they have to forgo the pleasure of family and observance in order to keep their job, serve the company and society, and ultimately secure the future of their own family.  The extra amount they get paid is part of that value.

People spend time getting ready for the holiday.  They fix up their homes.  They buy the nice and traditional foods.  They may spend extra time getting clean and making themselves beautiful.  They probably also take extra pains to make sure they don’t say anything nasty to Aunt Sadie who was so terribly insulting last time she was over that …

Excuse me, I’m getting carried away.  At any rate, there is a cost to all that work.  All that pain.  If we were aliens paying a visit to our backward Earth cousins, we could infer the value of the holiday by all these things.  We could make it easy and choose only one thing, like spending money.  But in that case something like Christmas would be the all out winner.  What if eating candy was the one measure?  In which case Halloween would come in first, with Valentine’s day a close second.

So, here’s to your holidays – past and future.  I certainly hope they’re worth it!

 

Problems counting

Last week I rambled on about how there is no science of problems.  Is there?  Did anyone contradict me?  What do you think?

So, what the heck.  Let’s try it ourselves.  This is supposed to be a day of rest and reflection, right?  Let’s think about how lucky we are and how problem free our lives are.

What?  You say that’s not true?  You have problems, too?  Certainly not starvation or educational neglect.  But still problems?  Great.  Let’s hear them.  Let’s list them.

Maybe if we get enough problems we can start listing them using some system.  Maybe the Dewey decimal system – now that it’s been abandoned by our libraries.

Go ahead – list all of them.  Think about them.  We have computers with giga-bits of space – so try to fill them up.  How many problems are there?  Are there more problems than people?  Maybe it’s people that are the problems?  List them!

Maybe, just maybe, like the Nepalese names of god, if we list all the problems there are in existence they will magically go away?  I wonder.

Okay, I’ll start.  Here’s a starter list of problems.

What happened to flight MH370?  Why are the Russians overrunning Crimea against Ukraine’s wishes?  How can we help people living in squalor in tidal regions, like Bangladesh?  What can we do to help, and prevent, with accidents like the mudslide in Washington state?  How can we prevent every possible child molester?  What’s the best way of being 100% assured that all know molesters will never harm another child?  How can the SAT or ACT be improved so that it becomes a perfect predictor of academic success, without needing ANY preparation?

On the small front, how can I eat better so that I don’t gain weight so fast?  Why do my coworkers always seem to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior?  When can I expect my suppliers to always do things better than I expect, instead of just doing well enough to get by?

That’s my list, for now.  What’s your problem?

 

Problems with Science

Sunday typically sees a few people taking the time to think about those less fortunate than ourselves.  We may put a few dollars in the collection plate, pray for the sex slaves of Sudan, the child soldiers of Uganda, or even the garbage pickers down the street.  Then we leave.  We have to think about the kid’s soccer practice, or that project due at work tomorrow.  After all, if I don’t get that project done on time, I don’t have a job.  Without a job I can’t put money in the collection plate. And without that money, that garbage picker won’t be able to get free soup from our soup kitchen.

But this is the way we’ve been doing it for many years.  Have we learned nothing?

Perhaps it’s time to ask a simple question; why don’t we start collecting problems?  Like bug collecting.  Start going out into the wild and just collect them.  Don’t address them yet, don’t try to understand them, just collect them.  Pin them up on the wall.  Study them at leisure.

Why isn’t there a science of problems?  Aren’t these the things that plague humanity through the ages?  Hunger, anger, aggression, and suppression?  How many different problems are there?  Maybe once we put them up on the wall and take a good look, we might figure something out about how to make them all go away!

Imagine this.  You go to a museum in the future, and there’s a wall of dusty note cards.  The name of the hall?  Extinct problems that used to exist.  Just think, someday maybe all our problems will only be remembered in a museum.

Well, they might be on a history test as well.  But that’s another problem.

Or is it?

 

et tu, Neal?

Cosmos 2.0 has begun, and like the Olympiad, it heralds a new dawn of entertainment.  Whether it also ushers in understanding is another question.  On this day that we celebrate and respect religious worship, does it seem odd that Neal deGrasse Tyson should appear just before the altar?

Now that 34 years have passed, Dr. Tyson is taking up the mantle of Carl Sagan and teaching us about the wonders of the cosmos.  In so doing, he’s touching upon some significant events in our intellectual history.

A tragic character chosen in Episode One is a priest named Giordano Bruno.  Now poor Mr. Bruno didn’t do well as a priest, ostensibly because he had a great revelation about the infinite cosmos.  He tried to tell others, but the Catholic church took offense.  Somewhat unwisely he returned to Rome where the church gave him a warm welcome – and goodbye.  They burned him at the stake.

It’s not quite true, unfortunately.  The stake part is, but let’s say that the show took poetic license in telling the story.  You can read the details here.

The details aren’t quite important for today’s post, because my question is this; why do you think the Church felt threatened by Bruno’s crazy ideas?  That they were crazy is beyond doubt, because any idea that isn’t shared by more than “a lot” of people has to be crazy.  That’s the whole definition of crazy.  The fact that he would eventually be proven right, centuries later, isn’t important.

There’s a good chance that you, too, have a deeply held model of the universe.  It might have a god, or a GOD, or a whole pantheon of gods.  For all I know it may center around a black hole.  However, I ask you, why is it that (for most people!) it’s such a sensitive topic?  If someone comes along and says “Your view is wrong!” what does it matter?  Why do you care?

Why DO you care?