The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

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.

Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

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.

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.

Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.

Selection, Natural or Not

Darwin is extinct, it seems.  At least in the UK.  Perhaps I ought to explain.  I do not travel to England often, and I’m not always good about changing cash before I go.  Usury doesn’t sit well with me, and someone taking a cut just because I have to travel (usury actually doesn’t sting so much when you make a trip by choice) seems unethical.  When I discovered I was required in Oxford, my wife suggested I take some cash.  I went to the attic and rummaged through papers from a trip sometime within the last decade (my passport is still good, so it had to have been in this time frame), and found some ten-pound notes with Darwin on them.  They didn’t smell bad to me, so I said “I’ll just take these.”

I suspect that, like most people, I keep a pocketful of change as a souvenir when I travel to foreign shores.  So I had a few bank notes that hadn’t seemed worth changing back at the time.  Bread cast upon the waters, and all.  I had to make a small purchase in Oxford and the clerk said, oh so politely, “That’s old money, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.”  Interesting.  I had no idea money had a sell-by date.  She said “The bank will change it for you.”  Banks handle all kinds of money.  I walked to the nearest bank and the polite young man (all the bank tellers carry tablets here, like iPads at the Apple Store) told me that banks don’t do that service unless you’re an account holder.  “The good news,” he said, “is that the post office will do it for you, and it’s less than 300 metres from here.”  I was up to a 300 meter walk, so I went.  The British post office isn’t just a place to mail letters, I knew from living here years ago.  The woman at the counter frowned.  “I don’t know why banks send people here,” she said.  “We can’t exchange pounds for pounds.  I can change it into dollars for you.”  Of course, there was a charge to do so, just as there was a charge to change the notes from dollars to pounds in the first place.

Sadly I handed Darwin over and received American faces in turn.  Such is natural selection.  Ironically, just a few days ago I was at a farmer’s market (in the United States).  The man next to me received a silver note in change—he commented that these bills are somewhat more valuable than a standard Washington.  They are still accepted however, as legal tender.  In fact the last time I went to a US bank to turn in change, the bank officer looked at some very eroded coins and said, “As long as I can verify it’s US currency I can accept it.”  I still find occasional old coins in circulation.  Updating currency and then charging for having old money seems like it ought to count as usury.  But then, perhaps my ethics are simply outdated.