June 29, 2011

"Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet" - Book Review

Here on Earth:  A Natural History of the Planet by Tim Flannery, 2011

Australian Tim Flannery is a renowned evolutionary mammalogist and environmentalist who takes a Gaian versus Medean approach to the biosphere and future of Humankind.  He believes that in human affairs and our realtionships with Earth "the survival of the fittest means the survival of none."

There is much of value in this book.  It contains a large amount of evidence for the organic interconnectedness of Earth's crust, oceans and atmosphere - which Flannery calls the three "organs" of James Lovelock's 1965 notion of Gaia - and the degradations Humankind has inflicted upon them.  His discussion of the global, ecological ideas of Alfred Russel Wallace, 19th Century independent originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection, are also informative:  "Wallace realised that while evolution by natural selection is a fearsome mechanism, it has nevertheless created a living, working planet, which includes us, with our love for each other, and our society."

There is much in the book about which I agree with Flannery but I do not share his impatience with the United Nations as a forum for the evolutionary emergence of a global morality and civilization.  We are nevertheless in agreement that a new phase of cultural evolution awaits our species (see my post Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing a Unified Worldview) and this century represents the eye of the needle we must pass through to have a chance of bringing it about.  Flannery writes:

June 25, 2011





私達の祖先がシンボリック音声と言語を発明した後、ほとんど超自然的な人間との力に対する信仰は、約10万BP、始まった。私たちの先祖はこの前に象徴的に考えるように始まるかもしれないという点で他の動物という説得力のある証拠がある - 類人猿、犬、イルカ、そして他の人が - にも象徴的にも人間よりも低い程度と効果に思うが。



June 22, 2011

Secularists: When Talking With A Believer Take The High Road, The Low Road Is Gridlocked By Both Sides

The following linked article discusses the history of approaches taken by skeptics (and secularists) in their discussions with religious, supernatural and paranormal believers over the past 172 years.  Micheal Shermer's recommendation is:  "If you start off a conversation with people by telling them that their most cherished and committed beliefs are utter nonsense and bullshit you have just ended the conversation before it even began—and shut the door to any further communication about the virtues of skepticism."

Psychologist Ray Hyman recommended the following approach:  "If we envision ourselves as the champions of rationality, science, and objectivity, then we ought to display these very same qualities in our criticism. Just by trying to speak and write in the spirit of precision, science, logic, and rationality…we would raise the quality of our critiques by at least one order of magnitude."

The thrust of the article is a recommendation of restraint - let the arguments of reason and facts of science speak for themselves.  Don't miss the last quote in the article from 1838....

A Prehistory of DBAD (Don't Be A Dick):  1838-2010 by Daniel Loxton, eSkeptic, June 22, 2011
A.C. Grayling:  "How can you be a militant atheist?  It's like sleeping furiously," The Guardian, April 3, 2011
What's So Great About Kant?  A Critique of Dinesh D'Souza's Attack on Reason by Michael Dahlen, Skeptic, August 17, 2011

June 21, 2011

Understanding How Our Brains Work - Opening a 'can of worms' may be a good beginning.

Roundworm neurons.  Photo:  The New York Times

Ever the skeptic about neuroscience and sociobiology mapping the long and intricate pathways between neurons and genes and human behavior, I nevertheless find the article described in the New York Times article linked below very interesting.  Biologist Cornelia Bargmann's research on the brain of a lowly roundworm has promise for understanding much about these pathways in other brains, including ours.

Precisely charting pathways for food finding, harm/death avoidance and other sensory/motor activity in any organism is one thing.  However, I still look with apprehension to the day when our most complex and "highest" behaviors, such as subjective experience, imagining and speculation, as well as our "cultural universe" of cognitive symbols and ideals, are reduced to mean exact pathways involving gene triggers and neuron electro-chemical firings.  Perhaps what I most fear is when subjective experience, cultural symbols and memes become seen as nothing more than a geneto-neuronal function.

Can human qualia be biologically reduced this far and still leave us with our humanity, dignity and freedom?  It can if we insist on a holistic understanding and appreciation of Humankind.  Hopefully such inquiry in neuroscience and genetics will enhance our appreciation for the cultural universe our ever-evolving species created and has become almost totally dependent on for survival.

In Tiny Worm, Unlocking Secrets of the Brain by Nicolas Wade, The New York Times, June 20, 2011
The Believing Brain:  From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Consruct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer reviewed by Ronald Bailey, The Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2011

June 17, 2011

"Elgon Pearls: A Ugandan Journey"

Sipi Falls, Mbale District, Eastern Uganda, 2008

A great new blog about Mbale District in eastern Uganda.  A bit of Ugandan history, culture and journalism by a great lady, Immy Rose Namutosi Lassiter!  Click here to visit.

June 16, 2011

"I Accept Science AND Believe In Supernatural Beings And Powers" - Is This Possible And Is It Too Late For A Secular Global Morality And Civilization To Emerge?

If there was no Adam and Eve then there was no evil.  If there was no evil then why do we need a savior?
Evangelicals Question the Existence of Adam and Eve:  "Christians can no longer afford to ignore the evidence from the human genome and fossils just to maintain a literal view of Genesis."

Can You Believe In God And Evolution? Time Magazine, August 7, 2005
When Science and Religion Mix Just Fine by Nolla Willis Aronowitz, Good Culture, September 23, 2011
Islam, Charles Darwin and the Denial of Science by Steve Jones, The Telegraph, December 3, 2011 

Is Accepting Evolution "Optional" For Christians? by Karl Giberson, Ph.D., Huffington Post, HUFFPOST RELIGION, June 3, 2011

The difference between these Christians and other believers, and secularists is the former are willing to go a crucial step further and accept a supernatural being and His powers whereas the latter refuse to do so.  Consider this rhetorical though common dialog in today's world:

Believers ask secularists, "Why not go this extra step and 'complete' your truth?"  To which secularists answer, "To do so would require two standards for truth - one for the observable, measurable, testable, and another for all else."

The believer responds, "But there is clearly a preponderance of complexity and awesomeness in Life and the Universe that warrant different standards 'outside' those we use for tangible matter."

"And what might those standards be?" ask the secularists.  Scientific Christians, for example, often respond:  "It just makes sense to do so;" "It just feels right and good;" "Why limit yourself to observable, measurable, testable matter and their processes for the greatest of all questions?;" or "There is just too much science has not explained to limit oneself in these matters."

June 13, 2011

Is The United Nations A Secular Organization?

English agnostic George Holyoake coined the term “secularism” in 1846 and defined it as follows: "Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life." (italics mine)  Wikipedia defines "secularism" as “the belief that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.”

In his address at the 2009 Summit of Religious and Secular Leaders on Climate Change in London, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the UN as follows:

“As a secular organization, the United Nations has no common religion.  But, like all the major faiths, we too work on behalf of the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.  We share the same ethical foundation:  a belief in the inherent dignity of all individuals.  That is why we work in partnership with Governments, corporations, civil society and faith-based groups.  That is why we support the Alliance of Civilizations, which is fighting extremism and working to improve understanding and cooperation among nations and peoples.”

Two UN documents also show the UN to be secular in that it is concerned with facts that are:  1) founded in the present life; 2) pertain to the experience of this life, and 3) are capable of being tested.  These documents are the UN Charter of 1945 and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief of 1981.

June 7, 2011

African Culture and Personality Reconsidered

Check out an article I published in 1999 in the African Studies Quarterly:  The Online Journal of African Studies entitled "African Culture and Personality:  Bad Social Science, Effective Social Activism, or a Call to Reinvent Ethnology?."   See also my reply to a detractor of this article "African Culture and Personality:  A Reply to D. A. Masolo."

In addition to its implications for African studies, this article also provokes thought regarding anthropological theory and methodology, and the power and ills of political social-mobilizing rhetoric.  It also calls for a reconsideration of public notions of excessive cultural and national pride, xenophobia, and "we/them" thinking that slow the emergence of a global morality and civilization.

I am in the process of evaluating the ideas presented in the 1999 article and will publish the results in a new blog essay entitled "African Culture, Philosophy and Religion."  Comments on the 1999 paper and my reply to Masolo are welcome and needed from my African and/or Africanist friends, my fellow friends of Africa, and all other readers as I reconsider my original notions and work on the new essay.

In grateful anticipation of your comments....

Leading Women In Science

Ten Historic Female Scientists You Should Know by Sarah Zilinski, Smithsonian.com, September 20, 2011
Women Atop Their Fields Dissect The Scientific Life, The New York Times, SCIENCE, June 6, 2011
A General In The Drug War, The New York Times, Profiles in Science:  Nora D. Volkow, June 13, 2011

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