Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Permian Record

GorgonIt looked like an arm bone to me.  Then again, I have no formal training in either anatomy or geology.  The strata of Pennsylvania shale was littered with shell fossils from before the dinosaur era.  Had I found a rare early animal?  You see, I love fossils.  In fact, I was so disappointed the first time I walked into a Fossil store that I’ve never had the heart to go back.  Something about finding the remains of creatures millions of years old is inherently fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to grow up by a river that had plenty of fossils for the taking (a great pass-time for children of humble means).  When I saw Peter D. Ward’s Gorgon at a local book sale, I had to get it.  In addition to my love of fossils, I also have a special interest in Medusa, and the title grabbed two aspects of my attention at once.
 
The gorgon of the title is explained by the subtitle: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History.  As Ward explains, many in the media express surprise that there was anything before the dinosaurs.  Perhaps I grew up with too much Genesis on the mind, but I knew about the Permian Extinction—the most deadly episode in Earth’s biological history.  Over 90 percent of life forms died out, including some of  the cooler species of mammal-like reptiles like the dimetrodon.  I have to confess, however, that I don’t recall ever hearing about gorgons before.  They are a South African species.  Well, they were, long before apartheid and other ridiculous human foibles.  Indeed, one of the charms of Ward’s account is that he doesn’t separate the human element from the paleontological.  His visits to South Africa often demonstrated how the current dominant species of the planet participates in its own extinction.  Valuing personal gain over social justice cannot have long-term payoffs.
 
This is a compelling story of people committed to finding answers in a barren land.  To an inveterate fossil-hunter like me, it was a dreamy sort of read.  I had my fossil “arm bone” assessed by a geologist.  It was actually a trilobite trail.  A trace fossil.  Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.  The answer of why of the Permian Extinction transpired turned out to be the most distressing aspect of the tale.  Climate change, Ward demonstrates, can easily lead to mass extinction through the very act of breathing.  Our evolution has favored the current atmospheric makeup of our planet.  Dinosaurs, who appeared after the Permian Extinction, had evolved lungs for processing air with less oxygen than we’re used to.  Greenhouse gases can shift subtle, invisible balances that are necessary for taking a breath.  And I could extrapolate to a future where technology will again come to the rescue, but only of those who can afford it.  And I wonder what far distant evolved intelligent species will make of a civilization where financial gain was considered the greater good than survival of an entire species?  Humanity itself will have become a fossil by then. But a well-dressed one.

Drumheller Drama

Those who’ve participated in the great drive out west—if you’ve done it you know what I mean—have passed through the range of dinosaurs. Actually, dinosaurs can be found here in the east; New Jersey once had a reputation of the home of the hadrosaurus, before an even larger beast took over the state. In my native Pennsylvania the occasional dinosaur footprint would be found. But to really see the dinosaurs, the west is best. In Makoshika State Park you can find triceratops skulls right out on the ground. You can find plenty of Christians as well. Ironically, we’ve advertised to the world that Christians and dinosaurs don’t mix, but, in fact, they can get along just fine. In a BBC story my wife sent me, one of Canada’s great western dinosaur reserves, Drumheller, Alberta, has a potential clash between sauropods and savior. Seen from one angle, at least. The story by Tom Holland points out conflicting wills for an entrepreneur who wants to build a dinosaur display and a long-established passion play that occupies the space he wants.

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News doesn’t get read without some measure of drama, so Holland pits the dinosaurs against the Christians. What seems to me, however, as the real issue is entrepreneurial expansion versus what seems like an arcane melodrama, the reenactment of Jesus’ death. Ironically, the greater part of North America was colonized by Christians of various descriptions. Many of them established their culture in various ways across the landscape. As a culture, it wasn’t always belligerent, and sometimes even beneficial. Passion plays, once upon a time, were considered the mark of culture. Jesus, I’m sure, knew nothing of dinosaurs but would have had no problem with them, I contend, if he had.

The issue here is less about science versus religion as it is about cash versus culture. Even Ahab turned his face to the wall when he couldn’t have the land that he wanted. If someone else got there first and made a recurring shrine, does capitalism have the right to slough it out of the way? I love dinosaurs. I’ve driven many miles out the way to see dinosaur trackways far beyond the trodden path. These are but shadows of footprints cast millions of years ago. Both dinosaurs and Jesus have their place in our hallowed past. While pictures of Jesus riding dinosaurs may well be over the top, the message perhaps rings true: there’s no inherent conflict here. When someone wants to make quick cash, however, there will always be sacrificial victims involved.

Google Me This

Technology frequently flummoxes me. Although I use it daily, it changes more swiftly than I can hope to. Working for a British company, for example, my computer seems to be a loyalist. It supposes that it is in the United Kingdom even as it sits on my desk in New York. I’m told this has something to do with a mystical key called an “IP address.” When I search Amazon, prices come up in pounds. When I google something, I’m told that European laws restrict certain searches. And, interestingly, I discover that Google’s icons of the day have a British theme.

GoogleI’m assured Google is a fun place to work. One of those enlightened companies that believes reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of employees leads to good results. Were that all companies so enlightened. In any case, the famous Google logo is often decorated with a commemoration of the day. This past week, two such icons appeared on my UK searches. The first commemorated Nessie with something like the 81st year of her appearance. The icon puckishly showed Nessie to be a fake, a submarine actually piloted by aliens. Later that same week, on St. George’s Day, a dragon appeared on the icon. I began to wonder about this reptilian connection. If lake monsters are real, many make the claim that they must be plesiosaurs, their dinosaur cousins that most resemble them. St. George, clearly a character cut from the same cloth as Hadad, slays a dragon—an equally mysterious reptile.

We tend to associate dragons with evil, although in world mythology they appear equally as often as harbingers of good. Human interaction with reptiles has always been fraught. Somewhere along our evolutionary track we must’ve shared a common ancestor with them. Even today some responses, such as fight or flight, are referred to as those occurring in the “reptilian brain.” In Genesis 3 the serpent slithers in. According to Revelation, at the other end of the canon, the snake is still there at the end. It was only happenstance that Nessie and George’s unnamed monster appeared in the same week, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a deep connection between them and us. We can’t seem to get away from them, even should we flee across the ocean.

Animal Form

Mort(e)The fear of insects is fairly common among people. It is difficult, however, not to appreciate the “hive mind” and how insects in colonies work for the betterment of all, often at the expense of the individual. Now imagine that the hive mind resents what humans have done to insects over the millennia. And suppose that their massive mind allows them to develop a hormone that transforms animals into partial humans with consciousness and, for the most part, workable hands. Then you’ve got the premise of Mort(e) by Robert Repino. A debut novel about a cat (Mort(e)) and his desire to find a friend in the fog of war that follows the transformation of animals into people, the story is as compelling as it is creative. Add in a strong dose of religious concepts (Mort(e) is considered a messiah among the battered human population, and he has a prophet) and you’ve got a captivating story perfect for comment on this blog.

While not all novels I read have a religious element, a surprising number do. And this isn’t because I pick stories with religious themes. It is because religion pervades the human outlook on life. Repino’s novel, however, does go beyond a casual mention of religion. It turns out to be central to the plot in a way that, were I to describe it here, would constitute a spoiler, and since I want to encourage reading of Mort(e), I don’t want to reveal too much. Suffice it to say, without religion a large part of the story would be missing. No matter whether you believe religion is good or bad, you’ll find plenty to think about here.

These days I read novels liberally mixed in with non-fiction reading. Sometimes I’m disappointed after I spent a few hours on a book and find it to lack substance. (Sure, I do read as a guilty pleasure from time to time, but here I mean the kinds of books you invest in.) Mort(e) is a substantial story. The world in which the protagonist operates can be described as apocalyptic, and end-of-the-world scenarios have a way of raising questions about what we believe. The time spent reading Mort(e) is a good return on investment. And once it has been out there long enough, I’ll want to return to that plot spoiler to investigate it further. It’s that kind of book.

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.

Love the Sinner

Nashotah House, in the many years I taught there, was very saintocentric. Our daily lives revolved around Saints’ Days, many of whom I’d never heard. Not having grown up Episcopalian, I wasn’t accustomed to all the obscure people recognized as worthy of having their own day. I was, however, surprised to learn that the church did not venerate the two most well-known secular saints: Patrick and Valentine. Perhaps having its origins as an all-male institution, St. Valentine’s Day was considered a dangerous concept to commemorate? But no, he wasn’t even on the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rest of the world was celebrating love, we were generally getting ready for Lent.

The truest holidays mark the observations of subtle shifts in nature. With our indoor, virtual lives, we’ve lost track of the fascinating rhythms of the natural world. The birds begin to pair off and mate, so the etiology goes, around this time of year. So to baptize that pagan erotic longing, St. Valentine was brought into the picture. So the story claims. Religions have always found love somewhat of a stumbling block. On the one hand, it is the highest ethical good—the greatest moral regard you can have for another person is love. (We try not to tell them that, because it might betray too much, however.) On the other hand, love can lead to physical intimacy and there things get a little dicey. Religions of all descriptions attempt to regulate sexuality. It may be a fearful thing, so perhaps we should put a saint’s face on it. Could act like cold water on the natural fires of biological creatures in February.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication

So instead, Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. Kids send one another cheap cards indicating their enforced regard for one another. Guys carry flowers awkwardly through the streets of Manhattan. The clerk at the chocolate shop, even several days in advance, sends you out the door by saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It’s the secret we all know. Ironically, the church has backed away from Valentine. Perhaps, if our religious institutions took seriously what it means to be human, and promoted love as the highest good rather than political conformity, we would truly have cause to celebrate. But don’t mind me—more likely as not, I’m just gazing out the window, watching for birds and the hope of spring.

Seeing I

One of my few Twitter followers (stawiggins) suggested that I watch Dr. Ken Hayworth on YouTube. Specifically, Part 3: If we can build a brain, what is the future of I?, hosted by Galactic Public Archives. It is well worth 9 minutes of your time. Trying to figure out consciousness has been a major preoccupation of mine for some years. I don’t have the tools of neuroscience, but I do have over half a century of coming to know this “I” that constantly seems to wake up in this same body and experience all its woes and occasional joys. Hayworth suggests that the self is a model projected by our brains to help us make decisions and to plan for the future. In a fascinating thought experiment, he notes that if a duplicate self were made, we (or I) should not object to being executed since there is an exact copy now. Hayworth notes, however, that any individual will object because we are “designed” to think this way about ourselves. Designed, I wonder, by whom? I suspect Hayworth means evolution designed us that way, but evolution is non-teleological, and, I suspect, not really reificatory. Evolution is merely a process.

Perhaps the horns here are only those of a semantic dilemma, but I feel not. Hayworth goes on to discuss how instinct works to continue this illusion of self. I’ve never found instinct a very believable concept. We use it when we want to deny consciousness to animals and very young children. Since they can’t have a concept of “I” they have to have “instinct” to preserve themselves. Logically, to me, this seems to be fudging. What is instinct? Is it really any different than admitting at some micro-level, animals have consciousness? To me it seems that consciousness is one of those “turtles all the way down” kinds of propositions. To be alive is to be conscious at some level. Be careful how far down you dig here.

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Hayworth then goes on to what sounds like an almost biblical conclusion. Ethics insists that humans are part of a whole. (A very diseased whole, as the imbalance in society forces us to conclude, but a whole nevertheless.) To kill one is to violate the consciousness of the whole. This concept seems sound, and I would suggest that it might benefit from expansion. Why stop at the human level? We are animals. Animals are conscious. Here we are back at the turtles again. Perhaps we have expended too much energy trying to parse self from soul from mind from consciousness. Perhaps we are all part of a large collective consciousness. If so, we got some very sick units near the top. Any organic being that insists only one percent needs to be kept in perpetual plutocratic indigence while billions of others wonder how long they will survive at this payscale in this economy, or, more realistically, act as slaves to that one percent, is a sick beast indeed. If consciousness is collective, we could all use a massive shrink.