Thinking Plants

Consider your sources.  As an erstwhile professor I grew accustomed to repeating that, and this was before the internet started up, making claims of all kinds.  Certain news sources—think New York Times, or the BBC—earn their reputations slowly, over many, many years.  That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but it does mean they’re often on the mark.  So an article on plant consciousness on the BBC is worth considering.  Consciousness is still something we don’t understand.  We have it, but we can’t always say what it is.  Many, if not most, people tend to limit it to humans, but it’s become very clear than animals share in it too.  Why not plants also?  A few years back I read a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.  He made the argument that human consciousness must come from somewhere, and as we look down toward animals, and plants, what we see are smaller pieces of the same thing.

I’m not stating this as eloquently as Nagel did, but the idea has stayed with me.  The BBC article  notes how plants seem to react to human interaction.  And they seem to communicate back.  We lack the natural range to hear their responses, but some experiments indicate that plants at least communicate among themselves.  Being the BBC, the story reports but doesn’t necessarily advocate this point of view.  Still, it makes sense.  For too long we’ve supposed human beings to be the only intelligent creatures on this planet, taking the arrogant view that animals are automatons with no thinking ability.  To give them that would be to make them too human-like.

That particular viewpoint still exists, of course, but more and more scientists are starting to consider whether consciousness isn’t emergent from, as Nagel put it, smaller building blocks.  I tend to be on the more imaginative end of the spectrum—consider your source here—but it seems to me that plants could well have a consciousness too.  Trees move.  They do it too slowly for our species to notice it, fixated as we are on our own brief time in the world and our human affairs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t move.  It simply means that if we want to see it we need to shift our perspective.  Communication, it would seem, pervades nature.  If it does, isn’t consciousness somehow implicated?  Plants may respond when we pay attention to them.  To me that makes the world an even more wonderful place.


Insect Inside

It seems a shame we don’t have an accurate name to classify all of them.  Insects, arachnids, and arthropods, I mean.  Those creatures smaller than us that inspire fear.  I suspect I’m not alone in experiencing a profound ill-at-easiness for some time after a close encounter with various of these small creatures.  Some experiences can be sublime, such as the other day when praying mantis on the glass of our front door provided a wonderful opportunity to look at a marvel from a seldom seen angle.  More often, however, the response is one of terror at being outnumbered, out-gunned, or out-run.  Spiders can be speedy as well as scary and I often yield the floor to them.  If I’ve got an empty peanut butter jar handy I try to catch and release, but I’ll look with worry at the spot of the encounter for days.

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

Or the flying, stinging things.  Mostly they’re good for the environment and I don’t like to kill anything.  The other day, however, while returning the recycling bin to the garage I failed to notice paper wasps had built a nest (in just a day, since I’d taken the bin out only the afternoon before) above the door.  They were offended that I’d invaded their space—their concept of time is completely off from that of creatures that tend to live decades and want to stay in the same location for years at a time—and decided to attack.  This was a new stinging experience for me.  One flew down and stung my face then quicker than lightning landed on my right hand and bit again.  Its poison burned, I can tell you.  I’ve had run-ins with lots of stinging things in my time, but the shock probably added to the hurt.  I couldn’t even get the garage door shut, as previously mentioned.  

The next morning I awoke unsettled.  Houses have cracks and crevices.  They settle over time and critters can find their way in.  I understand.  Everyone needs a home.  But opening a door and being unexpectedly attacked hardly seems fair to me.  I hadn’t even seen the nest.  It’s easy to forget, in this virtual world of pandemic proportions, that we share the planet with a wide variety of others.  The large predators are mostly gone.  The countless small ones are still here, however, and many of them enjoy the way we’ve warmed the place up for them.  I have a feeling that when we finally outlive our welcome on our home, the insects, arachnids, and arthropods will be glad to stick around.


Being Prey

Since we’ve thought our way to the top of the food chain, I suspect we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be prey.  All our top predators are pretty much under control—so much so that when a lion, tiger, or bear kills a person it makes the news.  Even sharks are in decline.  This thought comes to me while on my morning constitutional I spy with my old eye young rabbits.  Lots and lots of rabbits.  During the summer they appear in such profusion that I suspect most of us don’t stop to look at them any more.  We don’t really eat them any more (and besides, I’m a vegan), so what use are they too us?  They’re here to be prey animals.

A lot happens in the dark.  I’m an early riser and sometimes I hear the animals cavorting in the night.  Sometimes I find what’s left of a bunny in the back yard—evidence that someone was hungry during the wee hours.  What must it be like to be a food animal?  Rabbits have a reproductive biology that permits a doe to become pregnant before she has born the litter she’s already carrying.  This seems to be evolution’s way of ensuring survival for creatures so often eaten.  Emotional ties between parent and child must be passing at best.  When I see the young out on their own I often wonder how they can care for themselves at such a tender age.  Of course the average lifespan of the eastern cottontail is only 15 months with merely a quarter of the population making it to two years.  After that they may have one more year.  They rarely ever die of old age.  No time for emotional attachment.  Either that or it’s brief but very intense.

We take a fairly long lifespan for granted.  It’s sometimes difficult to realize that for most of human history life expectancy—for those who survived childhood (not many)—was the forties.  For women it was more likely the twenties.  Young couples started families early and kept the kids coming.  We were not exactly prey, but like the rabbits we had to learn to say goodbye too soon.  We’ve thought ourselves to not only the top of the food chain, but to the point of prolonging our lives so much that deaths can be utterly devastating.  I look at the rabbit nibbling the overgrown grass in my backyard and smile.  The only yard nearby without a dog, I like to think they feel safe here, even if just for a little while. From the perspective of prey, every second counts.


Evolving beyond Fear

Live Science recently reported on a story that may shed light on human evolutionary behavior.  While my conclusions are speculative, they make sense, given the circumstances.  Titled “Albino chimp baby murdered by its elders days after rare sighting,” the story by Nicoletta Lanese describes how an albino chimp caused a fear reaction among its community shortly after it was born.  A few days later it was killed by the chimps.  Scientists must be careful not to attribute human motive to such attacks, and so they note that this particular community has a tendency toward infanticide, but that doesn’t explain the initial fear reaction.  An individual who was “different” appeared and the response was one of deadly violence.  We’re far from understanding human motivations, let alone those of animals, but it’s difficult not to see this as typical human behavior.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

Just because a behavior has evolved doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.  We evolved out of our need for tree dwelling in order to open new potential habitats—an experiment that proved wildly successful.  Can we not evolve out of fear of those who are different?  That seems to be the idea behind recent diversity and inclusion initiatives.  There are those who still resist them, but examine their beliefs and you’ll soon find fear of those who differ.  This atavistic tendency is remarkably close to the chimp behavior in killing an albino.  If we are to remain civilized, we must name such fear for what it is and grow beyond it.  Conservatism is often based in fear.  Fear of change is natural enough, but had our ancestors given in to it we’d still be in the trees.

We need to admit that the lives of those different matter. How long will we allow difference be a reason to fear other human beings?  The story on Live Science is difficult to read.  The chimp behavior is so typically human that we can feel sympathy for the murdered infant and his mother.  Fear, if left unattended, can bring us to this.  The antidote is education.  The more we learn the better we can cope with fear, which is, after all, a natural and necessary response to an evolved world.  Our fear of being prey has caused us to drive extinct most of our natural predators.  The world is hardly a better place for it.  Might not weighing fears and thinking through reasonable solutions be a better coping technique?  Fear can revert a human back into an animal state.  Or it can drive us toward improvement.


EBW

Nashotah House was a strange place to begin (and end) a teaching career.  Not only did you see students every day, but as faculty you were required to eat and worship with them twice a day.  (You were grudgingly permitted to have supper at home, with family, if applicable.)  You got to know students, and sometimes their families, well.  I suppose that was the point.  We had a lot of students from Texas, and one year a student spouse said she cried all the way home when she found her first colored leaf on the ground.  Granted, Wisconsin winters could be cold.  Even here in balmy Pennsylvania we have to use the furnace from October through May, leaving only four months of the year without artificial heat.  And even September can get pretty chilly.  I was thinking about this student spouse when I started to see the walnut trees turning yellow in July.

Yes, each plant has its own rhythm.  Not all of them need all their leaves until October or November.  Walnuts, however, are an interesting species (or whatever the plural of species is).  The walnuts you eat are probably of the Persian or English walnut variety.  Here in the United States, the Eastern Black Walnut is perhaps the most common deciduous tree east of the Mississippi, but since the nuts are hard to crack they aren’t grown commercially.  Squirrels worship them.  The EBW (do I really have to type out Eastern Black Walnut again?) is famous for its use of allelopathic chemicals.  Some people say it poisons the soil, but more specifically, allelopathic plants distribute chemicals into the soil that favor the growth of “friendly” species and inhibit others.  Yes, plants are quite smart.  The EBW is also wise in its use of the squirrel.  These ubiquitous chewers disperse the nuts widely.  It isn’t uncommon for me to find one on my porch when I go out for my early morning constitutional.  

The air is beginning to feel cool once in a while in the early mornings.  Like the walnut trees and the squirrels, I think I’m at the very early stages of feeling autumn coming on.  We’re still many weeks away from the colors of fall, harvest, and Halloween, but the wheel of the year is still turning.  It never really holds still.  We have the languorous month of August ahead, with its long, warm days and summertime activities.  The walnuts stand as sentinels, however, reminding us that nature is ever restless and ever inclined to change.  I don’t weep to see the changing leaves, but I do marvel at how nature seems to plan ahead for autumn, even in the midst of summer.


Yellow Jacket Redux

Back before what year it was really mattered, I stepped on a yellow jacket nest.  (I know I wrote about this last summer, but there’s a point being made here.)  So traumatic was the ensuing horror scene that I literally did not wear shorts (other than those obligatory for gym class) for at least a decade.  I’m still reluctant to do so.  The south side of our house is the best real estate in town.  For bugs.  After last year’s unfortunate yellow jacket massacre, I went out and patched every hole I could find and reach.  I missed one.  (Actually, it is where previous owners didn’t bother to reattach a porch light after installing a new porch.  The gap was too big to use filler and I was trying to figure out how to do the repair when it got cold out last fall.)  So the jackets are back.  Ironically, not two feet from where they settled last year.

I really don’t want to kill the little buggers.  I have respect for all of life, and if they didn’t regularly get into the house I’d leave them be.  They’re only doing what they evolved to do.  At times it seems like all of life is an experiment presided over by some alien race, curious about what would happen if a few select species were given an intellectual boost.  You see, these yellow jackets are smart.  They’re problem solvers.  When I realized what they were doing—it was already too late—I started going outside at 3 a.m. (I’m awake anyway) and duct-taping the gaps shut.  I did this three days in a row before I realized what would happen if the police drove by.  A guy in a hoodie in the dark, standing next to a window on someone’s back porch with a roll of duct tape in his hand?  How do you explain your way out of that one?

Nature couldn’t have given these yellow jackets a real analog for duct tape wrapping the entry to their home, but each day they came back and buzzed around it contemplatively.  I figured the stickiness of the tape (I could barely get it off my fingers) would dissuade them.  They began digging under it.  Not only that, they began building an exterior entrance tunnel.  Soon they had an even better fortified nest with an easily guarded means of ingress.  Their brains may be small, but working together they can accomplish truly remarkable things.  More so, in many ways, than this human who watches them with fear and reverence.


Museum Time

It was a very strange feeling.  Wearing masks, yes, and socially distancing, we went to a museum.  Casting my mind back, I can’t recall the last time I was in a museum.  On a family visit to Ithaca we decided to go to The Museum of the Earth.  Ithaca is a small town, and this is a small museum, nevertheless the first place Google (or Ecosia) brought up for fossil identification was The Museum of the Earth.  On Saturdays a paleontologist is on hand to help identify the traces of life from millions of years ago that lie scattered around for anyone to pick up.  Collecting fossils has a treasure-hunting vibe to it, and it’s great to find anything beyond the usual, ubiquitous sea shell imprints.  Don’t get me wrong—I love sea shells with their symmetry and flowing lines.  Some of them even look like angel wings.  But there’s a draw to the unusual.

Some time back I’d found a fossil in the Ithaca area that I couldn’t identify.  It was Saturday, and we’d all received at least our first vaccination.  And I had to wait in line to get an identification.  It was cheering to see so many people—with limited, timed entry—coming to a museum.  The specialist confirmed this to be an interesting fossil.  She identified it as a bryozoan, ancient animals related to coral.  This one, she suggested, based on the age of rocks in this area, was likely Devonian.  The age of fishes.  I was glad I hadn’t wasted her time, and I was glad to have an expert eye on something that, let’s be honest, often functions like pareidolia to the laity.

Years ago I took my daughter to an open house day at the geology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  If it weren’t for the calculus requirements (and I even tried to teach myself calculus because of it), I was seriously considering going back to school to study geology.  There is an organic connection between biblical scholars interested in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and paleontology.  I get too busy, it seems, to go down to the local creek to look for fossils.  Perhaps it’s for the best because our house would be full of rocks (even more than it already is).  The earth is a great museum.  Even so, it felt like an alien activity, late in this pandemic, to remember what it’s like to explore these treasures indoors, with strangers.  It felt as if time was actually progressing.


Buried Truths

I owe a lot to fossils.  Growing up just a block from a fossil-laden river in western Pennsylvania, as a kid I’d go fossil hunting with my brothers.  They weren’t difficult to find.  Maybe not museum-quality, but not bad considering that they were free for the taking.  I’d pour over some rock with many shells perfectly impressed in it and wonder.  Of course, my childhood religion taught that the earth was quite a young place because that’s what the Bible seemed to indicate.  Other than Chick tracts and related comic books we didn’t have many books around the house to explain this discrepancy.  One thing was pretty clear—the fossils were quite real.  We had no doubt that there had been dinosaurs.  How they fit into the Bible’s chronology (since the Good Book was written long before dinosaurs had been discovered) was unclear.

Mine was not an educated family.  We simply believed what the preacher told us.  Since Fundamentalist preachers don’t attend seminary, their response was probably something along the lines of, “the Bible says…”  Thinking about how to apply the Bible in a complex world was not their strong suit.  So we’d be taught that evolution was evil, but just literally a stone’s throw from the church hundreds of fossils could be found.  I suppose the evidence of those fossils kept me grounded.  I never could buy the “theory” that God created the world with apparent evidence of great age to test our faith.  A deity like that isn’t worthy of the name.

I still pick up fossils when I find them.  Apart from a brain coral and some crinoids, mostly I just find shells.  Knowing that this particular rock is evidence of the sea floor millions of years ago is thrilling.  It puts me in touch with the great antiquity of our planet, the times when people had not yet evolved to complicate everything.  Just a few days ago I found a rock with a vignette of life under the sea.  Looking at it closely there are crinoids among the shells, and what appear to be a drag mark where some unknown creature disturbed the silty Paleozoic sea bottom on its way someplace long before humans showed up.  Fossils always remind me of the responsibility of reading the Bible with an eye toward rationality and a recognition that a guide isn’t the same thing as a taskmaster asking you to believe the ridiculous.  That, I suppose, is why I can’t pass up a fossil on the ground. 


Welcome the Stranger

Welcome, sibling! Have you ever contributed to a genealogy online?  I know not everyone’s into their ancestry, but there’s enough of the treasure-hunt to it, and enough mystery to keep you turning the pages.  Some time ago—it was when I was a professor, because I actually had some leisure time—I posted a bit on WikiTree.  WikiTree is a free communal effort to map the world of relationships.  Just about every week there’s a newsletter emailed around, offering how many degrees of separation you are from someone famous.  Often this is tied into the news cycle, so recently Prince Philip was among those measured.  Then Carrie Fisher.  Without fail, over the past several weeks, the family member through whom I’m connected to the famous is a great uncle.  The same great uncle.

I usually lose interest when the relationship starts to get to siblings and spouses.  There are webs everywhere.  Still, this intrigued me.  I’d never knowingly heard of this great uncle (and certainly never met him) but he was under 20 degrees of separation from several famous people.  It made me consider how you never can tell what relationships might lead to connections.  My direct ancestors, as far as I know, were all humble, work-a-day sorts.  One branch of the family had an engineer a couple generations removed, but for the most part they were farmers, laborers, truck drivers, and such.  The web of human relationships includes everyone, of course.  At some point in our family trees, we share a common ancestor, be they Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon (or a blending of the two).  When we harm or hate another person we’re harming or hurting a sibling, distant or close.

Getting along with everyone may be too much for which to hope, but at least tolerating seems worth stretching for.  I once found a long-lost cousin.  This was accompanied by a wonderful feeling of having found a family I didn’t even know.  Genealogy made that particular reunion possible.  Before that I might have passed this cousin as a stranger on the street.  It made me stop and think.  Is that stranger actually someone related?  Traveling back to the areas my ancestors lived I occasionally glimpse a face that could be a distant uncle or aunt.  My mental calculus kicks in, but there’s really no way to know just how close they might be.  Now, if I were my unknown great uncle chances might be somewhat better that I’m only a degree or two removed.  Even so, I should try to treat the stranger as though that were the case.

We’re all interconnected.


Dark and Light

I perhaps have nothing new to say about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  It was published before I was ten, and although I grew up reading science fiction I really didn’t read any of Le Guin’s work until this year.  It wasn’t intentional—in a small town you read what you can get your hands on, and cover art designed to attract young boys often worked on me.  Now having read it, I’m left in a reflective mood.  Everyone, of course, comments on the gender aspect of the novel.  I guess I’ll be forgiven for doing so as well.  After all, it is the most striking feature of the story.  As we know from our lives on earth, gender affects pretty much everything about our lives.  The biological imperative is strong.  It’s no less strong in Left Hand of Darkness, but it is different.

In case you’re like me and haven’t read it (until now), it’s not a spoiler to indicate that it is the story of a male envoy to a planet where the people (and only large mammals) are genderless until once a month they enter “kemmering” when one becomes temporarily male and another temporarily female.  The genders aren’t fixed, but fluid.  Since the kemmering stage comes only once a month, during that time it become an urgent need among those experiencing it.  The novel isn’t about only that, of course, but it is the noteworthy feature that relates to the religion and daily life of the inhabitants of the planet Winter.

It might seem that this idea of shifting genders is itself science fiction, but it is not.  There are species on earth that change change gender, bringing into question the statement taken for universal that “male and female he made them.”  While gender seems to be evolution’s solution of choice for reproduction, that’s not universal either.  In other words, nature provides us with multiple ways in which plants, animals, and things in-between, can continue their existence on this planet.  The writers of the Bible weren’t great observers of nature, nor were they scientifically minded.  At a glance it looks like animals all conform to the model presented by Genesis.  In reality, the world is much more complex than that.  Religions aren’t always as comfortable with complexity as writers of science fiction tend to be.  Left Hand of Darkness is fine world-building and provocative at that.  This may be nothing new, but it is worth pondering again.


Whale Tales

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Always I’m surprised when other people seem surprised, specifically about animal intelligence.  Then I have to remind myself that our culture has absorbed the biblical view that people are different so thoroughly that even scientists believe it.  I watch the birds out my window quite a lot.  What they do is intentional and often quite intelligent.  True, not all animals are college material, but they are far brighter than the “automaton” paradigm with which I grew up.  So when I saw a piece in The Guardian titled “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information” I kept the tab open until I could read it.  Then I woke up this morning wondering why one of my many open tabs had the header “Sperm” on it, only to remember that I was going to read about whales.

I’ve written about Moby-Dick many times on this blog.  Although Melville didn’t experience financial success with it, he managed to pen one of the most profound and memorable novels ever.  One of the things he stressed was the intelligence of the whaler’s prey.  The Guardian article describes how, due to the magic of digitized log books, researchers can now compare captains’ notes about whaling.  What this comparison makes clear is that whales shared the information about attacks and avoided the areas where they occurred.  Despite the massive size of their brains, researchers had supposed whales to be rather stupid—or automatons—simply waiting to get slaughtered.  Animal intelligence is visible anywhere as long as we’re not afraid of that bogeyman, “anthropomorphism.”

We’ve been taught that human beings are so special that we think other animals act like us only because we’re projecting onto them.  Since the Bible informs us that we’re special and they’re further down the food chain, we must assume that creatures who destroy their own planet believing that they’re serving the will of God are somehow smarter than animals living in harmony with their environment.  We’re so smart that we had to add an extra sapiens to Homo sapiens to show just how special we are.  I’ve long suspected that animals are far more intelligent than we allow them to be.  Philip Hoare’s article offers us yet more evidence that we’ve underestimated our non-sapiens companions time and again.  Ironically we can accept that evolution explains how life forms change over time, but we somehow can’t let go of the story that says we’re somehow different.  I think we need to get out more and simply watch how animals behave.


Lizard Lords

In the aftermath of last week’s attempted coup by the alt-right crowd, NBC ran a story about conspiracy theories.  Specifically the lizard people (actually aliens) who secretly run the world.  If you hang out in weird places, like I do, you already know the story behind this: fueled by David Icke, some conspiracy theorists believe a race of shape-shifting alien lizard people control the government.  They’re deadly serious.  (You can fairly easily find videos purporting to show lizard people caught transforming at government events.)  The NBC story, by Lynn Stuart Parramore, traces the belief to an old anti-Semitic trope.  I haven’t studied this enough to have any opinions on the idea, but what caught my attention is that this particular conspiracy grew out of objections to Darwin.

While teaching I’d planned to write a book on Darwin and Genesis—I researched it for years.  I would add to Parramore’s story the fact that most of our political troubles today can be traced back to that same unwillingness to accept evolution.  Over the centuries in western culture, the Bible (while not necessarily read) had grown into such an object of veneration that anything which challenged it had to be rejected.  Charles Darwin was well aware that anyone following the dictates of science would be pilloried by a “Bible believing” culture, and this was in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Elitist intellectuals assumed this literalism would just go away but it never has.  When it appears (which it frequently does) they laugh at it and insist that if we ignore it it’ll just go away.  Then an armed mob takes over the U. S. Capitol.

The concern shouldn’t be that people believe in lizard people, but that they can’t let go of a threadbare literalism toward a book.  Biblical scholars are routinely ignored by those who believe their way of reading the Good Book is the only possible way to do so.  All other ways are “interpretations,” and these interpretations don’t reflect what God has told them personally, so they’re clearly wrong.  This view, simply dismissed by most of the educated, is extremely widespread.  It must be addressed in some way, rather than being treated as some passing fad.  There may be no lizard-people taking over, but this view of the Bible has been politically active for going on two centuries.  Instead of studying it and trying to understand it, we cut departments and positions that might help to solve the problem.  Maybe the lizards are controlling us after all.


Religion Prof

Back in 2009, when Sects and Violence in the Ancient World started out, there was a fair bit of interest.  At one point I was listed among the top fifty “biblioblogs.”  Back in those days I got to know James McGrath, the curator of Religion Prof, a great blog now hosted on Patheos.  If you want a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in religious studies, you should read him.  With an energy I can’t conceive, he posts interesting stuff every day, even while being a professor.  And like me, he’s fascinated by religion and pop culture.  He also understands something—links and likes and shares are important.  People in my generation and beyond often don’t think that clicking that little thumbs up will do anything.  It does.  More so, that share button.

I was really pleased when James agreed to do a virtual interview with me about Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  You can find the interview here—and be sure to recommend and share it.  James has several interesting books of his own.  You should check them out.  The world of religious studies (and dare I claim it, biblical studies) is hardly moribund.  Underfunded, yes.  Socially devalued, certainly.  But alive nonetheless.  James’ blog is proof of that.  My regular readers will know my usual jeremiad about how higher education has been treating religious studies.  You see, I’m an historical thinker.  Where we come from is important.  Higher education began because of religion.  Its origins lie in monastic communities preserving learning—some of it secular—for the good of the world.  Now administrators looking for a department to cut know just where to turn. Shouldn’t we treat our ancestors with a little more respect?

I’m forcefully reminded of the many times analysts have declared that religion would fade away.  The claim has been made multiple times over the centuries.  At the same time scientists studying humankind conclude that religion is good for us, and that we’re naturally inclined to it.  Of course we should cease studying it!  Well, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World has also evolved over the years.  Not all of my posts are about religion anymore.  Most of them touch on it, however, because I’ve studied it my entire life.  Not only did religion make Homo sapiens what they are, it also formed some of us individually in ways so profound that we’ll never escape it.  Some of us even wear it proudly.  Great job with the blog, James, and thanks for the shout out!

Remember the early days?


Truly Exceptional?

Exceptionalism seems to be in the air these days.  Most recently it’s become a plank in the Republican platform—America is God’s own chosen nation (despite what the Bible actually says).  It’s also been a trait of nearly all human endeavors.  Human exceptionalism, that is.  The idea, whether admitted or not, is based on the Bible.  Even those bespectacled scientists who make no time for religion insist that humans are different from other animals.  Why?  The Bible tells them so.  Evolution certainly doesn’t.  And so we go about thinking how superior we are to other lifeforms.  And not only that, but to other humans in other geographical locations.  It seems Homo sapiens sapiens could use an ego check every now and again.

Not only does our sense of superiority go downward over the animals, it also reaches to the very boundaries of this infinite but expanding universe.  We are alone, scientists declare.  The only intelligent life in a universe far beyond the ability of the human brain to comprehend.  There can’t be any alien visitations with (laughably) superior beings crawling out of their flying saucers.  No, we were the best that evolution could do.  And we elected Donald Trump to be our president four years ago.  What’s that about an ego check?  Especially since we’ve learned that there is water on the moon.  Almost certainly there was once liquid water on Mars.  There may even be traces of life in the atmosphere of Venus (although the earthly jury is still out on that one).  Only humans can make that declaration.

Photo credit: NASA

I have to wonder at this arrogance that comes along with consciousness.  Do we believe we’re the best simply because we learned to apply the laws of rationality to our gray matter?  Back when I was a seminarian the word “pantheism” was rather like a swear.  To suggest a universal connectivity (literally) was an offense against the deity portrayed in the Bible.  (I would hope that a God that big would encourage us to understand the implications of a universe so large.)  We humans have our good points, of course.  I love people and their foibles.  Were we not so dangerous we might even look cute in the cosmic eyes above, as well as the inferior eyes of our pets.  Exceptionalism, it seems to me, ought to be the dirty word.  It seems far more human and humane to throw the gates open wide and consider the possibilities.  I love people, but if we’re the best there is, the universe is in serious trouble.


Etymological Serpents

Snakes get a bad rap.  There are biological, evolutionary reasons people tend to fear them (some are dangerous and the way they move is literally creepy), but snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem and very successful reptilian forms.  Nevertheless they get associated with evil.  The other day I was consulting a book of Christian symbolism.  This was actually a book I’ve had since my childhood.  My eye fell upon the entry for serpent and the book gave the etymology as from Latin for “sin.”  I’d never heard this before and as I thought about it, “serpent” has the same ending as “repent,” so I wondered if the terms might indeed be related.  That most authoritative of lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, soon set me straight.  The etymology of serpent is from Latin (at least partially) but not for the word “sin” but from the word “creeping.”

Given what serpents do, that name origin makes sense.  The idea of sin being attached to snakes is a biblical one.  The Garden of Eden oh so long ago, and a serpent wrapped around a fruit tree.  That story has become one of the most influential in western culture, played and endlessly replayed with some combination of apple, woman, and serpent.  Genesis, of course, doesn’t specify the tree as an apple tree.  That association seems to come again from the Latin.  The word “apple” is malum, which may also be used for evil.  In Latin they have different vowel lengths and only become homophones in the languages of non-native speakers.  The serpent, on the scene at the primordial fruit tree, becomes associated with sin because of this story, not by its etymology.

The biblical view of snakes is not a positive one.  By the time of Revelation the serpent is associated with Satan.  It’s also called a dragon, which, as modern fantasy aficionados can tell you, is quite a different thing.  The dragon becomes associated with evil because of the Good Book also.  The reptile order generally doesn’t fare too well in the biblical world.  There do seem to be Sumerian prototypes for the story of the snake and the tree.  It’s not completely original with Genesis.  Still, you’d like to think that if someone is going to write a book about symbols they might take extra care with the etymologies.  People tend to fear snakes.  It’s hardwired into our primate biology.  That’s no reason to make them the bad guys, though.  All you need is a good dictionary to clear things up.