Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Human Omniscience

This might take some thought, but please bear with me. I’ve been reading about how some scientists are eager to promote rationality only as the true understanding of the universe. The flaws in this logic are immense. The greatest gaff here is assuming that evolved biological creatures with only five senses have come to comprehend the vastness of a universe in which we matter very, very, very, (and some scientific notation may be helpful here) very little. And we assume that’s all there is to know. Consider that when you want to spot the Pleiades in the nighttime sky, the best way to do it is not to look directly at the constellation. Our rods, which are far more sensitive than our cones, are not concentrated in the center of our field of vision. That means, in some circumstances, you see something better by looking slightly away from it. Don’t take my word for it, test it yourself on a clear night.

We also know that some animals have senses that we don’t. When’s the last time you picked up the earth’s magnetic field? We know it’s there and we know that some animals sense it. We don’t. Or consider the ant. If ants make you itchy, any hive mind will do. There are creatures right here on earth that think collectively, not as individuals. As humans we’ve evolved to think that our limited experience tells us everything there possibly is to know about truth. We don’t know how living under water influences perceptions because we can’t do it. No, we’re a race of surface dwellers. (There’s a metaphor there for those of you who believe in such things.) We’ve learned some basic laws of physics and suddenly we preside over the courtroom of the universe since our evolved logic is the only and the best the cosmos has to offer.

Evolution, however, also made us religious. If logic is at all what it seems we have to admit that study after study has shown the benefits of religious belief to the beleaguered human psyche. If we try to measure it empirically it crumbles in our fingers. Only logic would tell us simply to ignore it then. I’m no enemy of reason. It’s the best way we have of getting along in this world. I love science and support its evidence-based health. It’s just that as I’m standing here in the dark wondering where the seven sisters are, I sometimes have to trust my rods instead of focusing on what I can see plainly with my everyday sight. Logic tells me there are other things outside my sensory range as well.

Photo credit: NASA

An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

Dog Daze

I read quite a bit about animals. One reason is that when you’re counting all the species on the planet we’re pretty clearly among the animal part. Having grown up with many pets, the dogs particularly stand out. We tended to have only one dog at a time and they were so full of personality that it obviously wasn’t a matter of projecting to understand that one was more or less optimistic or joyful than another. Some could be mean while others were loving. There was quite a bit of buzz about W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose back in January. For Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge the book fit one of the categories for me, and so I found myself reading about animals again. The thing about buzz is that I listen with only half an ear. I didn’t know much about the book except that it was a novel narrated from a dog’s point of view.

A couple of things struck me as I got into the story. One was that the protagonist ended up still believing that humans were more important than dogs. I suppose there’s some kind of evidence for that, from a dog’s viewpoint, but it doesn’t seem very strong to me. After all, we’ve bred wolves into pugs and cockapoos with an intentionality that even Mr. Darwin would’ve recognized as unnatural selection. Left to their own wolves would’ve adapted, but they’re pack animals and while dogs may think us the alphas, they’re each an important part of the group. They are giving, but that’s the nature of being in a pack. It’s also something that elected officials in Washington could stand to learn. When there aren’t rifles and traps, pack animals prosper.

The second thing that stood out about A Dog’s Purpose was reincarnation. The idea scares me. Life’s been a long challenge this time around and, unlike Nietzsche I’m not sure I could face it this exact way again. In any case, reincarnation only works if there are souls to pull it off. Cameron posits that for Toby to become a fully developed Buddy four cycles of reincarnation are needed. Like a good Platonist, our protagonist recalls the important lessons from each previous life and is able to develop into a more fulfilled dog each time around. The karma here is good. Cameron does seem to “get it” from a human-projected dog’s point of view. It can be fun, and it can be sad. The important lesson, for me, is that animals are who we are and to be a successful pack we need to look out for the good of each other.

Animal Fights

What does it mean to be human? The answer’s not as straightforward as it might seem. Reading Robert Repino’s Culdesac, that question came back to me time and again. This novella takes off from the story of Mort(e), about which I blogged shortly after its publication. Humans and animals that have acquired some human characteristics are at war. Most see those on the other side as inferior and that can make a human being reading the tale just a touch uncomfortable. We don’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with non-human animals. We are all, after all, members of the same “kingdom.” Even down to the level of phylum and genus many of us show more general similarity than stark differences. Culdesac is a morphed bobcat who remembers all too well how humans treated animals before the war. And memory is a powerful thing.

Repino has a way of sweeping the human reader (here the enemy) into the story and making those foundational questions ring as if struck with a hammer. What does it mean to be human? Granted, reading such provocative work under the current administration adds a layer of poignancy that wasn’t there when Mort(e) stood alone. In fact, it is a question that we have to ask just about every day when we see the headlines. There’s no leadership on this point coming from above. The idea of other humans as chattels has a long and disgraceful history. You can differentiate anyone on some basis or another: female or male or intersex, black or white or brown, rich or middle class or poor, large or average or small. Differences working together might be the very definition of culture. Culdesac shows what can happen when one sees only the distinguishing characteristics rather than the commonalities. It’s a parable.

Education, the one weapon in our arsenal that actually dismantles prejudice and intolerance, was one of the first targets our government sought to dismantle after 11/9. Indeed, the antipathy—if not downright hostility—toward education has been a characteristic of which Americans have long been unduly proud. We are not self-made, none of us. We all had our teachers. We all had our books. As we stand on the rim of this smoking crater and wonder how hatred toward one’s own species could be allowed to be nominated, let alone win, I believe the answer lies in our personal belief in education. We must all use the opportunities we have to educate. Get caught reading a book. Or helping a stranger. Or just being kind. As Culdesac emphasizes, wars are long-term events. Results won’t change after only one skirmish. If we all valued education—reading, learning—enough such aberrations as this could never happen. If you’re casting about for something to read that will make you ponder things at a most human level, I would suggest Culdesac.

All There Is To Know

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude but I just had to laugh. A friend sent me an article from Science Alert titled “A Physicist Just Explained Why the Large Hadron Collider Disproves the Existence of Ghosts.” Intrigued, I read, “there’s no room in the Standard Model of Physics for a substance or medium that can carry on our information after death, and yet go undetected in the Large Hadron Collider.” One of the reasons, I believe, science has trouble among hoi polloi is such arrogant statements as this. I don’t know about ghosts, and for a very good reason. There is no experimental way to test for that which doesn’t exist in the material world. The LHC may tell us all we can know about the world that we perceive (although I doubt it) but it can’t tell us about that for which there is no measure (e.g., consciousness). I don’t mean to get all complex here, but let’s stop and think about this for a moment.

What we know of the universe is what we can perceive and extrapolate from that perception by reason. We, however, don’t perceive everything. Our five senses evolved for one purpose and one purpose only—to survive in this particular environment. That’s a trait, hate to admit it as much as we might, that we share with other animals. It helps to be able to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things clearly. These traits give us valuable information about the world around us—is that plant poisonous? Is this heat going to kill me? Should I avoid approaching that large, angry-looking bear? Things like that. What our senses don’t tell us is the aspects we didn’t evolve to perceive. We understand everything about nothing. Put another way there is nothing that we understand completely. Entire books can be written about the concept of zero and that’s just an abstract. We only experience a small piece of this universe.

That’s the problem with being in the backwater of the galaxy. I grew up in a backwater so I know what I’m talking about. Things might be different if we lived near the galactic hub, where beings with different senses may well exist. We know, for example, that even on our planet some animals perceive magnetic fields. Who knows what kinds of abilities might have evolved on worlds that posed different challenges to survival than our own? Who are we to say that here in our basement on earth we have a machine that can uncover every possible permutation of anything in the known universe? I don’t know about ghosts, but, I suspect, they’re laughing too.

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Lunar New Years

Celebrating the New Year in the middle of winter is a strange idea, at first glance. As I have discussed before, January 1 is “Circumcision-style New Year,” based on the projected date of Jesus’ circumcision after the church had settled on December 25 as his birthday. In actuality, a winter New Year date is due to its proximity to the winter solstice, and the other popular contenders for the honor of the head of the year, historically, have been the spring and autumnal equinoxes. The matter gets more complicated when a culture has a lunar calendar since the sun and moon don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their timing. That accounts, obviously, for a shortened February, but also for why a full moon doesn’t occur on the same day of each month. Now, I know little of Chinese culture, but I do know that Chinese New Year fell on January 28 this year, initiating the year of the rooster. Considering what had happened only eight days prior, this feels incredibly apt to me.

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Cultural diversity is a wonderful thing, and this nation is rich in it. You can, to pick a trite example, sample cuisines from around the world in a moderately sized town. Here in New Jersey getting onto a public transit bus will almost guarantee that you’ll hear at least one non-English conversation going on. Nevertheless I do have to confess that I don’t know what the year of the rooster represents in a Chinese context. As concepts cross borders they take on new associations and those who assign those new associations don’t represent those from the original land. So let it be here. Not knowing what the rooster symbolizes in China, I turn to its American expression—the cock. This is its year. The newspaper headlines read like a fortune cookie, in this distorted view of things.

To shift this metaphor to yet another cultural context—originally Jewish, but now appropriated by Christians around the world—think of Passover. For Jesus a night of betrayal. Peter, arguably Jesus’ best friend, denied three times in one night that he even knew his BFF. Cursing and swearing, according to the Gospels, he said, “I don’t know that man.” The cock crowed. It was around the spring equinox. A new year had begun. Within 24 hours, according to the story, Jesus was dead. We have much to learn from other cultures. The concepts change, however, when they’re stopped at the border.