Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.

Mouse Trap

The other day a friend asked me about theodicy.  Not in so many words, of course, but the question was distinctly familiar: why would an all-good, all-powerful deity let good people suffer?  My response, hurried as it had to be, coming as it did on a work day, was that this was the classic question that had led to the dismissal of much belief among those raised in the Christian tradition.  It is, if you will, the Achilles heel of the non-biblical unofficial trinity of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.  The answer typically given is that people have only a limited view and, given that we can’t see the whole picture we’re in no position to judge a being who can.  That got me thinking about the whole picture itself, and whether there is such a thing already in place.

As a young person learning to think theologically, I had to spend hours discussing with peers and teachers what this might mean.  Time, they would assure us, does not affect God.  The Almighty stands (metaphorically) outside of time and therefore understands how all of this will come out.  And the final result will be good.  The orthodox would then chime in that an eternal Hell was necessary to punish sins that, in comparison, lasted only a short time, comparatively.  This would raise the question of justice again, and whether or not we were all marionettes in a puppet-show that really excluded free will.  You see, the other answer to the question of theodicy is that if humans have free will a deity can’t force us to do good.  Humans, they reason are responsible for making the good suffer.

With the weather turning cooler, we caught a mouse the other day.  Decades ago I opted for a humane trap since it seems unspeakably arrogant of me to kill another sentient being who’s simply trying to find food and stay warm.  From the perspective of that mouse, I must seem terrifying.  I’ve caught it in a metal trap.  I’m a hundred times its size.  It has no idea what I’m thinking.  When I catch mice I try to talk to them reassuringly.  It’s got to be disorienting to find yourself going from “o wow, peanut butter!” to “I can’t get out.”  If that mouse is thinking of a higher power I know that I can’t see much of the larger picture.  My view is local, compared to that of larger intellects than mine.  Still, I don’t want that mouse to suffer for being what it is.  I didn’t create it, but I do want to set it free to let it find its place in both space and time.

Burger Impossible

On the way home from Ithaca, we’ve learned the hard way to avoid I-80 through the Poconos on a holiday weekend.  Past experience indicates that about 80 percent of the population of New Jersey (to be fair, a percentage of that may be those from New York City) tries to squeeze through the Delaware Water Gap at just about dinner-time the day before work starts again.  There is a longer alternate route, I-476, the turnpike, which you catch north of Scranton and exit in Allentown.  The only issue with this plan is that, unless you want to exit the turnpike to try to find food in rural Pennsylvania, there’s only one travel plaza between our entrance and exit.  It’s a nice enough stopping point, but for a vegan on the road options are limited.  As we pulled in we noticed there was a Burger King.  Would they have the much touted “impossible burger”?

It turns out that they did.  Having last had a whopper well over two decades ago, mouth memory may have faded a bit, but I can honestly say this was like the whopper I remembered.  If you hold the cheese and mayo, you have a vegan version.  This discovery made me strangely happy.  For years at remote locations (and some urban) we’ve stopped when the only other options are meat based and had the BK veggie burger.  It’s not too bad most of the time, but if you want to think you’re eating meat while not contributing to the massive environmental degradation of industrial farming, the impossible burger seems like a reasonable option.  This is one area of technology that I’m glad seems to be catching up with ethics.

I often ponder how much our western point-of-view is based on the Bible.  Our reluctance to include animals in our ethics is another example of how the hard line between species has been applied.  Even scientists are susceptible to worldview bias.  When we realize we’re all part of a continuum of biological relatedness, it’s a lot more difficult to argue for our special place in the divine eye.  At the same time, insisting one’s ethics be applied to all is a form of fascism.  I’m just glad my conscience can be assuaged with some plant-based food options.  After all, I’ve been on the road for a few hours and I’m sitting here happy to be eating at Burger King.  It’s a matter of perspective.


It was almost a little too real.  As I looked at the fake blood—this wasn’t a horror movie—I had a hard time accepting this wasn’t the real thing.  I mean Beyond Meat’s vegetable-based sausage.  My daughter recently sent me a captivating article about artificial meat.  Unlike many paeans to its virtues by fellow vegetarians and vegans, this was written by an omnivore who unabashedly stated that we’ve reached the point where synthetic meat has surpassed the real thing in flavor and the eating experience.  The piece on Outside made me glad.  Feedlots, apart from being the largest industrial polluters in this country, are a horror film based on a true story.  The way we treat “food animals” violates just about every ethical stance in the book, and it’s a big book.  We do it for profit, of course.  Now that artificial meat is turning a substantial profit, those who slaughter are starting to pay attention.

I recently ate at a local restaurant where our waiter recommended the cauliflower burger.  The thought wasn’t appealing.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like cauliflower.  I prefer it raw, however, since cooking brings out its more cruciferous qualities.  In any case, our server said, “It’s new on the menu.  We offered it once before and so many people requested it that we’ve made it a regular item.”  Now we don’t exactly live in a hippie haven here.  Still, enough people are asking for alternatives that we’re discovering it pretty easy to find plant-based protein in some pretty remarkable places.  It put me in mind of my most challenging course in college: biomedical ethics.

A class that asked, and then pressed on very sensitive questions, biomedical ethics required a term paper.  I wrote mine on animal testing.  This was back in the 1980s, and technology has moved on since then.  Even back in those dark ages of Reaganomics, artificial tissue was being lab grown, eliminating the need for animal testing on many products.  Now we’re reaching the point where the same may apply to comestibles.  I’ve long used vegetarian alternatives (now vegan ones) and they’ve increasingly improved.  When I had the most recent alternative, however, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat.  It was too real.  I’m not morally opposed to verisimilitude, I assure you.  The closer they get to the real thing, the better it is for the animals who’ll never need to be born to be killed by us.  It’s just I find the fake blood upsetting, and I’m happy to be reminded that this is only a simulacrum after all.

Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?

Not for Men

Does anyone else think that feeding fishmeal to herbivores so that they, in turn can be eaten, is weird?  Brian Fagan in his Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization describes the long history of eating seafood.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense, but so does veganism.  One thing that becomes clear from this study, however, is that human civilization simply could not have developed the way that it did without fishing.  Food for those performing massive public works came from the abundance of the ocean.  Theology played its part too.  Roman Catholicism established a habit that still exists of eating fish on Friday.  In Catholic areas of this country Friday fish fries, and the occasional fish boil, are cultural icons.  As Fagan points out, part of the reasoning behind this was the belief that God gave humans fish to exploit.

We find, interestingly enough, that religious thinking often stands behind tragic results.  Although I’m a vegan, I find it distressing that the oceans—so vast in extent—have been depleted by human activity.  The main problem, which we’re slow to learn, is that technology has made fishing too efficient.  This isn’t some kid with a rod and reel on the bank of a muddy river, but rather the industrial-scale trawling that begins by locating fish schools with sonar.  Not only that, but the land habitat to which we bring the fish is also being depleted.  I’m probably not the only one who gets the feeling that Fagan’s writing about more than just fish.  Where there is abundance, we take it as an invitation to exploit.  Tech makes it so easy!

In the early history of humankind, seafood was a necessity.  As Fagan shows, it was sometimes reserved for hard times.  Now we feed fishmeal to domesticated animals not because it’s what they naturally eat, but because—you guessed it—it’s cheap.  I’m still not allowed to give blood because of the Mad Cow Disease scare that rocked Britain when I lived there.  In part it was caused by feeding herbivores feed that consisted of meal made from other herbivores.  I no longer eat fish.  With the world population what it is, and global warming stressing agriculture, it seems we need to be thinking about what’s for dinner.  Quite apart from the fact that fish are, despite proclamations of ecclesiastical bodies, animals just like any others, we’ve managed to scour the ocean so thoroughly that recovery may be impossible in some locations.  The reason often given is that God gave us the oceans to use.  And that kind of thinking always leads to disaster.