November 28, 2010

The Case For Human Evolution, Science and Reason - A Reading List

Since I began studying physical and cultural anthropology nearly forty years ago, I have been asked the following question many times:  Why do you accept evolution as an explanation of Life, and that humans originated and evolved on Earth?

The short answer is the similarities between humans and many other animals in particular, and all other life forms on Earth in general, are obvious.  Similarities, broadly speaking, imply similar origins.  If plants and animals are of the Earth, and humans have very much in common with these life forms, then humans are of the Earth as well.  All Life relies on Earth's food, water and air.  All Life grows, reproduces, dies.  Life and Earth are inseparable.  Humans and other animals are inseparable.  Humans are of the Earth.

My earliest inkling that I was very similar to certain other animals occurred in early childhood, especially in Fairbanks, Alaska from 1954-59.  Although I had not learned the terms or specifics, I could understand the general concepts.  Simply by looking and comparing I saw many physical and behavioral similarities between myself and most of the animals, especially mammals, I encountered:  head, body, limb structure; five-digit hands (paws); bilateral symmetry (left and right sides along a center line); male-female differences; the five senses; warm bloodedness; ability to "think"; the experience of pain; dreaming; eating, drinking, sleeping; parenting; play; learning; illness, disease; birth and death.  I did not know at the time why such similarities existed but the observable facts compelled me to intuitively feel connected to Earth and its other life forms.

I was convinced that I was one of them, an earthly life form, not something apart, above or special.  When thinking about my similarity to other animals I also wondered if there were more similarities that I did not know about such as:  I could tell that animals think but do they think like I do and if so, what do they think about?  Although I did not know exactly what they were I was also aware there were important differences, physically and behaviorally, between humans and animals.  But the similarities captured my interest and were more reassuring to my childish mind - I was connected to other living things, I had a place, Earth!

At the same time I began learning the teachings of Christianity in sunday school and accepted their view that animals, humans and all life forms on Earth were created by God.  Despite my fascination with and compassion for animals and all other living things, I accepted Christian teachings that humans are special and that it was good for humans to exert their will over the Earth and all its Life, though it did seem quite selfish and mean to think this way.  I remember thinking this must be true because I saw no non-human animals driving cars, flying airplanes, wearing clothes, using money, etc.  Humans must somehow be special, I thought.  But Christianity did not explain why God had made humans and the other animals so similar.  So I began trying to understand this on my own.

Then came school where I learned many things about Nature.  Most interesting of all were the basic facts I was taught about the Earth and the other animals, especially in science lessons in primary school.  As I continued in school and later college my original childhood impressions were supported by further experiences in Nature, and by lessons in the sciences of biology, human anatomy and physiology, geology, and natural history, including the human and non-human fossils of palaeontology.

In my teens I gave up my belief in Christianity's explanation of human origins and became an agnostic.  It was easier for me to believe in the Earth and its Life as I experienced and observed it.  That is, as I was in it and of it, rater than believe the Christian interpretation.  Later I became an atheist who does not accept the existence of the God of Abraham but believes in Spinoza's God - Nature, and who tries to live according to the teachings of Sōtō Zen Buddhism.

So, what is the evidence and reasoning that support my acceptance of a scientific versus Christian version of life on Earth and human origins?  Here is a sampling of relatively recent books that present most of the compelling evidence and reasoning that I have considered over the past forty years, and accepted as truthful .  Based on my experience and the ideas expressed in these books and others, I have acquired a scientific, evidence-based worldview.  Despite its current incompleteness and inability to answer all questions and solve all mysteries, and its continual revision, I accept this worldview as a way of understanding humankind that is far closer to the truth than the unchanging supernatural beliefs and teachings of religion, especially the respective worldviews of the three dominant monotheisms - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

It is regrettable that these following books are not read or taught from in secondary schools, and that Christian fundamentalists go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the teaching of so much of the material they contain.  This situation is more than regrettable.  The resistance to science and reason as an explanation for the origin and nature of Life on Earth is a threat to the future of humankind, and perhaps the Earth and all other life.  Insisting that supernatural beliefs of religion are better than science and reason for understanding Life, addressing the challenges of humankind and the Earth, bringing about world peace, and serving as a foundation for establishing a global civilization and morality, is simply not supported by the history of religion.

Current conflicting political ideologies notwithstanding, I believe that science and reason are our best hope for establishing a global morality and global civilization.  They are central to the only worldview that focuses all nations and cultures into a unified consensus about the natural facts of Life on Earth, including human life, and the universe.  I cannot be certain that such an effort will succeed in bringing about peace, prosperity and a unified civilization based on a single morality but it is past time we began trying.

This is just the beginning of a reading list and I will be adding other books and articles.  Please let me know if there are other readings you think should be added.

What Exactly is Evolution?
What Evolution Is (2001) by Ernst Mayr
Darwin's Universe: Evolution From A to Z (2009)by Richard Milner
The Evolution Pages
A Theory of Evolution for Evolution
The Complexity of Evolution
Free Evolution Book Downloads!, National Center for Science Education, June 14, 2010
Evolution of the Evolutionarily Minded, Science Digest, July 19, 2011
A Theory of Evolution for Evolution
The Complexity of Evolution
Exulting in Science's Mysteries, Richard Dawkins Quotations, The New York Times, Science, September 19, 2011

The Evidence for Evolution
TalkOrigins
Evolution:  What The Fossils Say and Why it Matters (2007) by Donald R. Prothero
Why Evolution is True (2009) by Jerry A. Coyne
The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution (2009) by Richard Dawkins
The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (1996) by Richard Dawkins
The Ancestor's Tale:  A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (2004) by Richard Dawkins
"Mystery and Evidence" by Tim Crane, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, September 5, 2010
Dinosaur and Bird Feathers in Amber, National Geographic, September 16, 2011
Lines of Evidence, berkeley.edu
Tree of Life Project Aims for Every Twig and Leaf by Carl Zimmer, The New York Times, Science, June 4, 2012

The Evidence for Human Evolution
The Complete Human Evolution Evidence Database
Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2008) by Neil Shubin
Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins (2005) by Carl Zimmer
"Human Evolution Education Resources", paleophile, May 4, 2011
Tracking Lineage Through A Bramble, The New York Times, May 9, 2011
Life Cycle of a Primate's Bite, The New York Times, July 4, 2011
African and Non-African Populations Intermixed Well After Migration Out of Africa 60,000 Years Ago, Genome Studies Show, ScienceDaily, July 13, 2011
Skull points to a more complex human evolution in Africa, BBC, September 16, 2011
Why is there only one human species? BBC, June 23, 2011
A New Fox Poll on Evolution, National Center for Science Education, September 7, 2011
Not Just Skin Deep:  CT Study of Early Humans Reveals Evolutionary Relationships, ScienceDaily, September 19, 2011
What's In A Name? Hominid Versus Hominin, Smithsonian.com, November 16, 2011
Bonobos Join Chimps as Closest Human Relatives by Anne Gibbons, Science, June 13, 2012
Some Prehumans Feasted on Bark Instead of Grasses by John Noble Wilford, The New York Times, Science, June 27, 2012
Evolution, Humanism, and Conservation: The Humanist Interview With Richard Leakey by Ryan Shaffer, The Humanist, July/August 2012

Evolution of Human Consciousness and Language
The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (2000) by Michael Tomasello
The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (1997) by Terrence W. Deacon
The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science (1996) by Steven Mithen
Evolution of the Evolutionarily Minded, Science Digest, July 19, 2011

The Evolution of Human Society
The Evolution of Human Sociality:  A Darwinian Conflict Perspective (2001) by Stephen K. Sanderson
Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive, The New York Times, July 4, 2011
How Change Happens:  A Threefold Strategy, truthout, August 5, 2011
The False Allure of Group Selection by Steven Pinker, Edge, June 18, 2012

Evolution of Human Culture
The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (2005) by Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson
The Dawn of Human Culture (2002) by Richard B. Klein and Blake Edgar
The Selfish Gene:  30th Anniversary Edition With a New Introduction by the Author (2006) by Richard Dawkins
The Meme Machine (1999) by Susan Blackmore
Perfection is Not a Useful Concept by Nick Bostrom, The European, June 13, 2011
Evolution of the Evolutionarily Minded, Science Digest, July 19, 2011
The Elusive Big Idea by Neal Gabler, The New York Times, Sunday Review, Opinion Pages, August 13, 2011
The Theory of Everything (Sort Of) by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, Sunday Review, Opinion Pages, August 13, 2011
"Explaining it All:  How We Became the Center of the Universe," The Beginning of Infinity:  Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch reviewed by David Albert, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, August 12, 2011
The Age of Outrage by Roger Cohen, The New York Times, Sunday Review, Opinion Pages, August 13, 2011
We Go To Sleep And Drown Our Sorrows In Consumption by Roberto Unger, The European, October 24, 2011.  Culture change via crisis in northern democracies.

Evolution of Human Values and Morality
The Moral Landscape:  How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010) by Sam Harris
Reinventing the Sacred:  A New View of Science, Reason and Religion (2008) by Stuart Kauffman
The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (2007) by Andre Comte-Sponville
The Science of Good and Evil:  Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (2004) by Michael Shermer
Living Without God:  New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided (2008) by Ronald Aronson
The Atheist's Way:  Living Well Without God (2009) by Eric Maisel
Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment (2008) by Phil Zuckerman
Ebon Musings - The Atheism Pages
Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive, The New York Times, July 4, 2011
How Science Can Help Us Be More Rational About Morality, Psychology Today, July 21 2011
The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievemet by David Brooks reviewed by H. Allen Orr, The New York Review of Books, August 18, 2011
Rule Breaker, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2011.  Re. Patricia Churchland on morality and neuroscience.
True Believers, All of Us by Frank Bruni, The New York Times, Sunday Review, August 6, 2011
Evolution's Gold Standard by Diane Ackerman, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, August 8, 2011
The Vigorous Virtues by David Brooks, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, September 1, 2011
The False Allure of Group Selection by Steven Pinker, Edge, June 18, 2012

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