July 9, 2014

Anti-Intellectualism In American Life - Excerpts And A Comment

The further I read in this great, Pulitzer Prize winning book the more amazed am I that the principles of the Enlightenment – the improvement of society through reason; the challenging of ideas grounded in tradition and faith; and the advancement of knowledge through skepticism, scientific method, and intellectual interchange - have not by now been completely rooted out and discarded by mainstream America and the politicians that prey upon, serve, and ultimately rule them. [Perhaps this is in fact the real American story, that Enlightenment principles remain in place at all.]

Maybe we are experiencing the last chapter in the current conservative, Christian, Republican effort at such an eradication and societal takeover.  For the holders of this vision seem to be ever-more numerous, determined, and entrenched in power. If they ultimately succeed, and current events in the US continue to strengthen my belief that they might, a new and much more brutal Dark Age will soon and surely follow.

Anyone know of a novel or work of nonfiction, written by whomever, describing the conservative, Christian, Republican utopian vision of America’s future? I want to start drafting my survival/escape strategy in case I live to see their ideal society come about.

Book excerpts:

“The (eighteenth century New England) awakeners were not the first to disparage the virtues of mind, but they quickened anti-intellectualism; and they gave to American anti-intellectualism its first brief moment of militant success. With the Awakenings, the Puritan age in American religion came to an end and the evangelical age began. Subsequent revivals repeated in an ever larger theater the merits and defects of the revivals of the eighteenth century.

“As later revivalism moved from New England and the Middle Colonies and from the Congregational and Presbyterian denominations out into the saddlebag and bear-meat country of the South and West , it became more primitive, more emotional, more given to “ecstatic” manifestations. The preachers were less educated, less inclined to restrain physical responses as an instrument of conversion; and the grovelings, jerkings, howlings, and barkings (of early evangelical preachers and their crowds) increased.

“The Reverend Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister who traveled extensively in the Carolina back-country during the 1760’ s and 1770’ s left a chilling picture of the savagery of the life he found there:

‘Few or no Books are to be found in all this vast Country, beside the Assembly, Catechism, Watts Hymns, Bunyans Pilgrims Progress— Russells— Whitefields and Erskines Sermons. Nor do they delight in Historical Books or in having them read to them, as do our Vulgar in England, for these People despise Knowledge, and instead of honouring a Learned Person, or any one of Wit or Knowledge, be it in the Arts, Sciences, or Languages , they despise and Ill treat them— And this Spirit prevails even among the Principals of this Province. … The Gentlemen of the Law, seem now to engage their Attention … they want for to demolish all the Learned Professions. Human Learning being contrary to the spirit of God.’

“But men and women living under conditions of poverty and exacting toil, facing the hazards of Indian raids, fevers, and agues, and raised on whisky and brawling, could not afford education and culture ; and they found it easier to reject what they could not have than to admit the lack of it as a deficiency in themselves.”

From Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, pages 74-79.

Here’s a very good reading list of other more recent books on the so-called culture wars in the US: http://s-usih.org/2013/01/an-emerging-historiography-of-the-culture-wars.html

If you haven't already done so please read Hofstadter's book if you read nothing else on this great problem in the US, one that has far-reaching implications for all the world and civilization.

June 8, 2014

Suffering And Injustice - Whose Awe, Truth, And Hope Will Prevail?

I am not angry at God and certainly do not fancy myself being him, as some I’m sure accuse me. In fact, I would never want to be God and have and use his imputed power and knowledge. Not even for a moment in which I might rid the world of, say, human suffering and injustice. The responsibility for such an act aside, removing suffering and injustice and all that causes, attends, and follows from them would be an unprecedented intervention in the unpredictability of the Cosmos. 

Eliminating any of the unpredictability of the Cosmos would forestall the possibility of certain serendipitous events taking place in the future. A look at the list of past serendipitous events and conditions that contributed to the origins of the Earth and life upon it, including our own, though a rare but not necessarily extraordinary occurrence in the vastness of the Cosmos, should make one, especially a God-for-the-moment human, hesitate to make any wholesale changes in how it all works. A cosmic intervention would also require certain violations of the predictable laws of the Universe that we are aware of - gravity, for example - and a number of others we so far have not discovered but would be briefly known to me, the God of the Moment, The Great Intervener. My mere tinkering, which is what it would be for such an omniscient and omnipotent one as me, would redefine every thing and every process, everywhere, forever.

Imagine that I was given such power and intervened on the side of no harm and all fairness. Henceforth, from I(Intervention)=.01∞ onward, no human harm or unfairness of any kind would ever again occur on Earth. And Earth itself would, in fact, must, in turn, exist forever for its end or harm done to it would harm us. Just imagine. No more suffering from diseases, wars, fires, floods, earthquakes, typhoons, air crashes, road accidents, or asteroid strikes. No more lying, stealing, or cheating. All that which causes us to suffer, including the suffering of other non-human life forms we might witness or the burning of our Sunday pot roast, would cease.

Humans would become incapable of doing or receiving any harm and experiencing any suffering. Also, all that which had previously deprived us of what is rightfully and fairly ours - freedom of speech, movement, access (to barbecue and ice cream and all else we desire), and the right to possessions (including tattoos, blue jeans and makeup), would cease. Everything that could occur and in fact occurred would be harmless and just. At last we would be truly exceptional, as we are currently fond of calling some individuals and nations. We would finally stand in our rightful place, fully apart, no longer in degree but in kind, from all other life on Earth. Surely, many would say, such a new state of global and cosmic affairs would be a great improvement over our current reality. Surely, they might say, we can now be happy and moral without having to make the least effort. We would have been re-made, born again, that way.

Abrahamic religious believers always seem to me to be quite pleased when they claim that God gave Humankind free will so that we, not him, must choose to cause or not cause suffering or injustices. This, they claim, is God’s test of our willingness to comply with his moral directives. And, should we comply, it would become a testament to our devotion to and faith in him - “…thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

There is, however, evidence for a better, more compelling argument that the choice to do harm or good, to be just or unjust, appeared in human evolutionary history long before its origin was attributed to God by the Jews, Muslims, and Christians a mere four thousand years ago. Prior to 4,000BP our human ancestors were far from ruthless, amoral pack of primates no better than wolves or rats. We had standards the evidence for which is the fact that we had not the skills, teeth, or strength of chimps, wolves or rats. It doesn’t require much to deduce that the survival of a relatively anatomically weak, long postnatal-dependency primate such as our early ancestors simply had to have had some way of protecting our own from harm from within and without the group; and sharing somewhat fairly what meager victuals we could scavenge or over which we could out-compete the carnivores. Making and using stone tools and fire certainly upped our odds but knowledge of their manufacture and use required a social sophistication beyond what had been useful before - alpha males and females barking orders at subordinates and beating them over matters pertaining to food and sex.

Values pertaining to freedom from harm and notions of social justice began as a reaction to the form of social life that existed during the pre-human period of higher primate evolution. This social behavior pattern simply was not working to sustain anatomical primates such as our forebears. During these early pre-human times, as evidence from the fossil record and inferences from the behavior of extant non-human primates allow us to conclude, more often than not, might made right. Yes, there was social cooperation to find and capture food and to facilitate grooming. And, yes, there was maternal care and paternal protection of the group’s offspring. But notions of suffering and fairness were matters of secondary importance to primary matters such as food and sex which, were usually addressed by threat displays, actual fighting, and thereafter maintained by the group hierarchies they created though threats and fights remained necessary to maintain a fairly stable order among the ranks. Sorry, my baboon and chimpanzee friends and the humans who study them, this is what non-human primate behavior strongly hints at about the pre-human past. [Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey (in abstentia), Frans de Waal, Robert Sapolsky, Michael Tomasello and all of your ideological descendents, and all primatologists and ethologists everywhere, take a number and wait your turn to bash me.]

At some point on the human branch of the primate evolutionary tree, this basic primate social contract was deemed to be in need of modification. Oh, the physicality and grandiosity of alpha males and females would still rule but options for non-suffering and justice were nevertheless added to the early humanoid life schema. These ideas/values (?) were enhanced, facilitated, and formalized through the use of symbolic language and speech, and the emergence of more complex forms of reasoning that language and speech made possible.

These new counterintuitive values (counterintuitive to the full-frontal, hit-bite-grab remember-your-place-or-else approach that had dominated non-human primate social life for so long) were nevertheless eventually introduced and became part of what would separate us behaviorally, and continue to distinguish us, from all our other primate relatives. Notions of harm protection and fairness were valued in that they tended to ameliorate the brute power of the biggest and strongest group members in terms of access to resources (sex and food) and survival. Values associated with protection from harm and concepts of justice, in turn, contributed to the survival of a greater diversity of individuals possessing and introducing new behavior potentials within the population. This included individuals who were physically weaker yet as smart, or smarter, than their alpha leaders. That is, individuals who possessed new or innovative survival skills and who were therefore regarded to be as valuable, and in some cases more valuable, to the group than those wielding brute power.

Returning to the matter of suffering and justice in more recent times, I am reasonably convinced and humbly submit that religion is not all bad and that not all believers are fools, as many atheists and agnostics would have us believe. The alleviation of suffering and the pursuit of fairness, at least among their own and those who will convert, are unquestionably among the major tenets of the Abrahamic religions.

I am awed and humbled by the power of Nature and the Cosmos. I am also inspired and made hopeful by Humankind's ability to reason, our pursuit of objective truth, and our capacity for compassion. I think alleviating suffering and promoting justice are natural outcomes of a way of life founded on reason, truth, and compassion.

Imagine the Earth populated by humans who cannot or will not reason; whose knowledge is not informed by objective truth; and who have no capacity for compassion beyond that for their own kind. All who eschew or misuse reason, reject or misrepresent objective truth, restrict their compassion to the like-minded, and lead or force others along this path, live in defiance of Human Nature. When they do so in order to advance their privilege, power, religion, ideology, or nation above that of all others, they subvert the freedom of every member of Humankind to pursue an awe, truth, and hope different from their own.

To behave in such a way is to be inhuman, to be inhumane. In this approach to the community of Humankind there is no honest reasoning, no reverence for objective truth, no unconditional compassion, as only true compassion must be. This is the long-standing myth of human life as first and foremost a struggle for power - power to control another's freedom, their awe, their truth, their compassion. This is suffering. This is injustice. Remind you of pre-human, non-human primate priorities – power, food, stuff, sex?

It is our ability to communicate about the consequences of our behavior in the past and potential behavior in the future, and the collective, protective covenant we entered into with each other at the dawn of humanity hundreds of thousands of years ago that still distinguish us and represent, so far, as our species’ greatest achievements. The core principle of that covenant is acceptance of the need to agree and act upon standards related to the avoidance and alleviation of suffering and those of fairness and justice, writ large. This, in the face of threatening events in the ever-challenging, ever-changing physical and social environments, is indispensable to our humanity, to enlightened, civilized life.

Our duty to each other, whether atheist or believer, is not to stand our ground and clear the ethnosphere of ever upstart idea that challenges one or other of the currently dominant repositories of awe, truth, and hope. Ours is to encourage and tolerate all arising notions and winnow them using reason, evidentiary standards, and the conventions and protocols of the yet nascent global morality - to assess their usefulness for improving our adaptive capacities, including our panhuman hopes for freedom from suffering and justice for all.

We would thereby have, it has been shown repeatedly in our human evolutionary history, the best chance for individual and community thriving and our species’ survival. Bludgeoning each other, physically or mentally, into compliance with one worldview, one adaptive strategy, one path to fairness and justice, or one religion, ideology or another, will not guarantee success in the fluid and unpredictable reality of this biosphere and its future. Reason, tolerance, evidenced-based knowledge, and compassion, my beloved believers and atheists, won’t guarantee success either, but they do up our chances.

May 19, 2014

Reason And Compassion - Hallmarks Of Human Nature

This new journal premiered in March 2014.  It describes its aims and purpose as follows:

Science, Religion, and Culture is an open access interdisciplinary journal focused on bringing together research and theoretical analysis from the physical, biological, and social sciences with ideas from philosophy, theology, and religious studies. It aims at exploring the unique relationship between science, religion, and culture, and it welcomes submissions from all perspectives and religious traditions—including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, secularism, humanism, and naturalism. Given that science and religion are two great manifestations of human culture, special focus is given to the various ways modern science—including the disciplines of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, neuroscience, mathematics, sociology, and anthropology—support, oppose, inform, or are informed by religious, theological, and cultural perspectives. Additional focus is given to perspectives on science, religion, and culture from different geographical regions, cultures, religions, and historical epochs.

The articles in the first issue include:

Victor Stenger

Massimo Pigliucci

Robert E. Pollack

John Shook

Timothy Helton

The journal’s appearance prompted an online discussion between me and some of my local fellow freethinker friends (secular, freethinking, humanist, atheist/agnostics).  With reference to the first two articles by Victor Stenger and Massimo Pigliucci, one friend said that s/he had a low tolerance for faith-based ideas such as those of the Abrahamic religions and therefore sided with Stenger.  His/her implied assertion was that these religions, and other faith-based belief systems, have not made the world a better place.  Since it is impossible, his/her argument went, to know what the world would have become without the influences of religions, the assertion that the world is a better because of them is a non sequitur.  The following is my response, which I have expanded a bit since the discussion: 

I have much difficulty pointing a disparaging finger at any abjectly poor person anywhere in the world who finds comfort and/or hope in organized religion. At present, this is the plight and relief option most often taken by the vast majority of Humankind. To me, it is reasonable for them to find comfort and support locally, among those who share their language and culture, and from those who can help immediately. Especially when such a persons’ crops fail, their livestock die, and their children become seriously sick, or their nation-state's government and economy fail.

Impoverished American Family, Photo by Dorothea Lange

Haitian Worshipers

The secular humanist freethinker agnostic/atheist (SHFA/A) option has far less appeal to the majority of Humankind than religion because it is not as organized.  It thereby has relatively no institutional capacity to provide mental, emotional, and material relief and assistance compared to organized religion. The greatest challenge faced by SHFA/As today in their effort to supplant organized religion as the repository of Humankind’s most widespread worldview, I think, is to build a comparable and equally if not more capable humanitarian relief capacity. Regrettably, beyond their commendable advocacy efforts at promoting science education and keeping governance secular, ridiculing organized religion as something only for the ignorant and stupid, and dismissing/diminishing the strings-attached help religion gives, have a higher priority for many SHFA/As than building such a capacity.

Benny Hinn and some of his many followers

Pastor Creflo Dollar, purveyor of prosperity theology

As for the middle class and wealthy, worldwide, who rely on religion to maintain and increase their wealth, privilege, and relatively high standard of living, who willfully refuse to exercise critical thinking, and who allow themselves to be manipulated by religious leaders, I have low tolerance. In fact, the approach of many of them to what they consider a life worth living contributes to a life not worth having for many in the world who are less fortunate. I think most such persons are mentally lazy, selfish, or without compassion, or all three, especially the otherwise highly intelligent among them.

Philosophically, I have had little success taking a stand on whether Abrahamic religions have done and do more harm than good.  Or, perhaps a better way to put it is:  Have these religions contributed to making the world and Humankind “better?”  [I ask this despite my friend’s correct assertion that the argument that Abrahamic religions have made the world better is a non sequitur.]

If we want a quantifiable measure, the atrocious deaths of religion-associated wars, pogroms, crusades, inquisitions, fatwas, jihads, Buddhist holy killings, and other religious-based killings are fairly easy to count, estimate, and tally. I don't, however, know how to compare the millions of lives represented by these numbers to the millions of others who have and continue to benefit mentally, emotionally, spiritually, educationally, and medically from their acceptance of organized religion and its worldview. Even if I found a way to analyze such numbers I doubt if such quantification would allow a unequivocal conclusion about the morality, the good or bad, of religion, or whether, overall, religion has made the world and Humankind better.

I remain a SHFA/A who values cultural and religious tolerance and pluralism, the promotion of scientific knowledge and education, and strictly secular forms of governance. The best I can do is help build a global morality and civilization from what the world, in fact, "is" and hope that it might, one day, becomes what I and many others think it "ought" to be. I contribute best when I do so one idea and one person at a time, with reason and compassion.

One of the participants in the discussion also wrote:  "The problem that many non-believers have with religious faith and institutions is worth taking seriously: What if the comfort one takes in faith also happens to be harmful...."  My now expanded reply follows.

I agree.  When religious beliefs, values, behaviors, and/or institutions brutalize, marginalize, and persecute others they become immoral. I take non-believer objections to such acts very seriously.

My problem with the problem many, not all, non-believers (NBs) have with religious faith and institutions is as (one friend) stated earlier, they don't think broadly enough about it.

For many if not most new atheist NBs, the solution to the problem is to call for and angrily participate in a full frontal social, intellectual, ideological, and personal assault on all religious beliefs and institutions. Into their cross hairs also come the religious mainstream and any good that organized religion does for the poor, hapless, and hopeless.

The argument NBs often use to justify this shotgun approach is along the following lines: Despite any and all good done, religious beliefs and institutions and their mainstream followers nevertheless provide a theological foundation or grounding, and sometimes tacit support and succor, knowingly or unknowingly, for the fundamentalist perpetuation of religious perversities and atrocities. Therefore for this reason, NB thinking goes, the whole lot should incur their anger, ridicule, and efforts to turn all people away from all religious beliefs and institutions.

To me this may make for greater clarity of the battle line and a larger more hittable target for the NBs, but it is a less than optimal choice among a variety of possible strategies they could choose.  First, such an ideological blitzkrieg shows a willful ignoring of or inability to acknowledge the good religion does. Doing so is a violation of a major tenet of enlightened critical scientific thinking - do not ignore inconvenient truths among that which one seeks to objectively and truthfully understand, change, or morally judge. Doing so lessens the validity of any overall truth you arrive at and flaws any subsequent rationale you use to justify action.

Second, such a blanket approach shows a lack of fairness, fairness or justness being another hallmark of enlightened thinking.

Third, in ignoring inconvenient truths and being intolerantly unfair and unjust to persons who hold opposing ideas, are not such NBs behaving in the same irrational, prejudiced manner of many of the very believers they revile?

Fourth, the disparaging chuck-the-baby-with-bath strategy of many NBs is less likely to succeed than one that focuses its energy solely on exposing the abuses of religious beliefs and institutions, and positively on secular governance and the education and persuasion of the religious mainstream.

Finally, abusing all religious faith (belief), institutions, and all who are religious as stupid and harmful to humanism and the progress of civilization shows a lack of appreciation for or willful ignoring of the historical contributions the Abrahamic religions have made to the historical emergence of individualism, humanism, and modern science, either directly, indirectly, or as a foil.

We non-believers should choose our targets for social and cultural change with more reasoned specificity, e.g., religious perniciousness.  We should also acknowledge the tangible good that religion does especially in relieving human suffering, and show greater respect for the potential of educating and persuading members of the religious mainstream. When we seek to educate and persuade, with reason, demonstrable evidence, and compassion, we shall occupy a moral and ideological high ground.

It is this higher calling - one based on reason, demonstrable evidence, and compassion - that Humankind has valued and striven for above all others during our brief time in the Cosmos. It emerged in early human evolution and became the necessary goal or ideal of the human life-way, our species’ adaptive strategy.  This was long before the Abrahamic religions emerged.  Bringing about a human condition where thought and behavior are motivated and justified primarily by reason, evidence, and compassion has and continues to be difficult to achieve. Political, economic, and religious forces and their associated killings and wars have and continue to block the way forward. Nevertheless, my bet is this more secular, rational, and compassionate approach will remain the premier hallmark in our cultural evolutionary future.  I think it will either outlast or force significant reforms in the beliefs and behaviors of those who follow Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and in the values and strategies of the politically and economically powerful of the world. However, it likely will never supplant any of their worldviews completely.

The degradation of the biosphere into a habitat unsupportable of life due to religious wars and theological intransigence, or political and economic competition and exploitation, is an outcome that the deep and ancient human mandate of living by reason, evidence, and compassion will not indefinitely abide.  This higher calling of human nature is too deep within us.  One need look no further than the rapid progress that is being made by international institutions, organizations, and forums in bringing about a secular global morality and civilization to find the deep primacy of reason, evidence, and compassion in the long-term human project.  Despite the eye-rolling and shrill cries of the critics of globalism and the current zeitgeist of headline-grabbing Christian and Muslim fundamentalism there is a deeper, more profound force at work.  Global international and multicultural efforts and the primal cultural and moral evolutionary forces they represent and that drive them will persist and, I think, prevail.

Demonization, ridicule, aggression, and attack, from the righteous and the non-believers, show our failure to value and seek that higher ground upon which our species' survival has and continues to depend.  Sometimes a fight is necessary. But overall, in the long term, the fought-for victories that have counted most have been those motivated by moral foundations comprised of reason, supported by demonstrable evidence, and infused with compassion for Humankind.  The journal Science, Reason, and Culture is a very apt and needed forum for discussing, criticizing, and moving this most human and humane of agendas forward.

Many thanks to my freethinker friends who voiced their views on these most important of matters, and who kindly led me to think more deeply and broadly about my own.

April 15, 2014

The Ethnosphere - What And Where Is Human Nature, Really?

I am in full agreement with almost everything Pigliucci says in the above-linked essay about "human nature." I am concerned, however, about what I see as his opinion that a good (unified, comprehensive?) theory of cultural evolution may one day be established.

"...despite much interest and a number of valiant efforts — we really don’t quite have a good theory of cultural evolution at hand."

Though he doesn't directly address the reasons for this lack of a good cultural evolutionary theory, Pigliucci is right about this.

The lack of a "good" cultural evolutionary theory, however, has less to do with our not yet coming up with one than it does with our scientistic expectations. That is, the incorrect belief and insistence that the patterns and practices of human cultural adaptation, extant cultural adaptations and all of those throughout history and prehistory, are reducible to a unified theory containing equations, formulae, and genetic mapping in a manner similar to what mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology apply to other phenomena.

An illustration of only a fraction of the ideas in the Ethosphere and our commentary on them.  This graph represents co-citation patterns based on all articles published between 1993 and 2013 in Nous, the Journal of Philosophy, the Philosophical Review, and Mind.  Photo Credit:  Philosophy@MHS

The reason we don't have a good theory also, and more importantly, has to do with the complexity of culture as an adaptive process.

Culture and cultural evolution are not fully explained by the Darwinian-Mendelian theory of biological evolution, or more recent related efforts called evolutionary psychology and memetics.  Worse, the approaches taken and speculations used in most of these two latter-day efforts are misinforming the public.

Ideas such as beliefs and values and their attendant and complex social relations such as marriage, family, and broader group relations, and the rituals, institutions, codes, and laws that, in turn, attend to them, have different properties from those of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, bodies, and species.

Cultural phenomena, both within a society at any point in time and through time, and comparatively between societies over large expanses of time, are artifacts of human mental life. They are created, shared, enforced, upheld, maintained, revised, and/or rejected within ever-fluctuating environmental and social and historical contexts.

There is a similarity between cultural phenomena and atoms, molecules, and species in that all are acted upon by conditions and processes in their environments. The difference is in the type and nature of their respective environmental conditions and processes.

Physical environmental contexts are at work on matter, biological individuals, and on cultural phenomena. However, over time the cultural adaptive strategies of individual societies and Humankind as a whole have led to the emergent development of an immense, complex, worldwide cultural environment – an Ethnosphere*. This cultural domain influences the ideas and values of every human society and their constituent individuals.

Non-human species are impacted by the physical environment. The decisions and other behaviors of individuals also influence individual and group survival and reproduction. Cultural phenomena are not completely comparable to matter and species. They are subject not only to the same physical and social influences at work on matter and species, they are also subject to the history and prehistory of ideas.

Take fire, for example. Its controlled use by our human ancestors began almost half a million years ago.  Archaeological evidence shows that it was initially used by Homo erectus for warmth, lighting, and perhaps cooking and protection from predators.  Later, fire was also used to facilitate stampede-ambush hunting. Since those earliest times, there has been a gradual increase in the quality and quantity of ideas about the nature and uses of fire. Since its initial use and spread between bands any new idea about fire has not only been subject to its potential influence on and from the environment, and on the viability and reproductivity of human groups, it has also been subject to the full range of historical and prehistorical ideas, codes, laws, and behaviors pertaining to fire.  Fire usage, once it began and was retained as a worthwhile adaptive stategy, was thereby added as a subset of the totality of Humankind’s cultural knowledge.  Eventually, the knowledge of and behaviors associated with fire became part of the cultural repertoire of all human groups via cultural diffusion or independent invention.

Trying to evaluate and understand the essence or fundamental nature of fire only (reductively) in terms of its relationship to the physical environment (matter), or fireness" as might be found in genes and neurons, or from fire's potential impact on individual and group survival and their biological fecundity, is ludicrous.

Fire ideas may be, to a degree, successfully subjected to the above approaches. However, and far more importantly, ideas about fire are also subject not only to the current market place of ideas (itself an environment separate from material physicality and bio-repro), but to all market places of ideas throughout cultural evolutionary history.

Pigliucci is right. Physio-chemical reductionism (materialism) is insufficient on its own and the Darwinian clone memetics is a misplaced metaphor ineffectively posing as a biologized theory of culture and cultural evolution.

Will there ever be a physical/genetic equation or formula for, or Darwinian explanation of, cultural evolutionary processes and their expression in human lives, past and present? I am doubtful. The best minds in the social sciences over the past century and a-half have failed to reduce this vast cultural complexity, this Ethnosphere, to a "good" unified theory.

I see a parallel between this failure and the failure, so far, to solve the brain-mind problem. The levels of complexity inherent in the entirety of cultural phenomena and their processes and manifestations, past and present, are directly expressed, in large part, in the mental life of the contemporary human individual.

Such information, for the most part, can be "held," "carried," and manipulated by the brain but deep notions about fire and its use are embedded not in our nerve cells and genes, rather in our archaeological sites, textbooks, and libraries.  In practical terms, each person born into a society, aside from the most basal neurologically reflexive responses to the bright light and intense heat of fire which he is born with, must learn the complexities, nuances, and utility of fireness and all other cultural phenomena of his society anew – from others.

Still, this essay is a very good read.

* "Ethnosphere" - "[Y]ou might define the ethnosphere as being the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness." https://www.wordnik.com/words/ethnosphere