Youth Evolving

Picture a picture.  A photograph.  I’ve got a specific one in mind, but it’s likely one you’ve not seen.  Any photograph will work for this lesson, but if it’s one of your own, one from your youth works best.  Your teenage years.  The photograph that I’m imagining is one of a slightly older friend of mine.  It shows him as a teenage machine-gunner in Vietnam.  I didn’t know him at the time, of course; I was too young to be sent off as a national sacrifice for a police action to protect capitalism.  In any case, I got to know this friend later, after he’d survived the conflict, wounded but alive, and I was struggling to survive puberty.  Emotions at that time were off the charts, but I never saw the photo until I was an adult.

Why am I asking you to think of old pictures?  I was recently reading a discussion where intelligent people were wondering why, throughout human history, we have idealized youth.  I suppose there’s no single answer, but I have a suspicion that it has to do with evolution.  We often wrongly assume that we can get at the naked truth.  As if we could somehow get outside of our own frame, our personal point-of-view, and look at reality objectively.  Our brains, however, evolved to help us survive in an often hostile environment.  The “point”—if you’ll allow me to hypostasize a bit—of evolution is to survive long enough to reproduce.  Many species with young that can care for themselves simply die at that point.  Mission accomplished.

As human beings (and mammals) our young need parental care to survive, at least for a few years.  Biology would seem to dictate that by the time we can reproduce—that self-same puberty which is such a difficult age—is the point at which we’ve reached our evolutionary goal.  There’s something deeper going on here, of course, but I wonder if this might not be behind the question of why we idealize youth.  We remember with a sharp pang—don’t need to see a doctor about that one—the incredible and unsurpassed discoveries we personally made at that age.  There will be other surprises as life goes along, of course, but nothing will ever equal our biologically determined goal.  I’m oversimplifying, I know.  Still, this may be one mystery that is less mysterious than it seems.  I know this because I have a photograph of a young man.  It matters not if it is of someone I know or me.  We have made it through our most awkward age, and we reflect on how it made us into who we have become.

Was I ever that young?

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.

Waking Up in Galilee

One voice can’t be heard. Unless, of course, it has a publicist. For years, it seems, I have been suggesting in my obscure corner of the internet that we’re not quite ready for the death of religion yet. I’ve never really doubted science, but I have noticed that science frequently draws the same conclusions as religion. Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists exclaim, with some surprise, that religion has a survival advantage. Of course, big men with white beards sitting on thrones in the sky just won’t do, but the underlying concept has utility. So we’re told. Now Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, one of the four horsemen of the new atheists, tells us that it’s okay to experience what has been known as, conventionally, a religious experience. Call it transcendent (I always do), but no matter what the chemical mix you concoct in the brain, it will feel good. Perhaps better than anything merely biological ever will. You’ll sell a million books. If you’ve got a publicist.

To me it seems that the religion question is a no-brainer. It wouldn’t persist if we had no need of it. Unlike the appendix, which seems not to have taken the hint that it is entirely vestigial, religion helps people (and perhaps some animals) survive. It doesn’t have to be sitting on an uncomfortable pew on a Sunday morning. It might be in the giddy heights of the Rocky Mountains where you can see to eternity and beyond and the rarity of the oxygen makes you lightheaded with a hologram of immortality. It might be the piercing peace that comes with light refracted through a glass so blue that superlatives fail you. It might be in imaginary vistas of an ice-bound Arctic where, you’re just certain, Nordic gods linger just out of sight. Transcendence can even come from traditional religious experiences, or so the stories of the saints proclaim. Anyone can participate. Those who have never forget.

The New York Times, in the Sunday Review piece by Frank Brunl (Between Godliness and Godlessness) introduces Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up. I know I’ll read it. According to the article, Harris discusses his own experience of transcendence. When Harris has such a revelation, it is a best seller. Or it will be. For those of us who quietly suggest moderation between bombastic religion and bombastic science, it is merely another day in the life of the quiet ones who observe without being heard. True, it takes courage in this culture to dole religion a knock on the head. It is not, however, going to send faith to a premature grave. We still need our religion. We might not call it that any more. Name it spirituality, or transcendence, or mystic mumbo-jumbo, but when it hits you it’s like an atheist in Galilee. Some call it a electrochemical reaction in the brain. Others call it walking on water.

Dore Walk on Water

Robotics FIRST


I knew it! It was right there on the cover of Wired magazine. “The Robots Take Over.” And it is also the very day of the FIRST Robotics kickoff, the day when Dean Kamen and his team announce to thousands of high school kids, teachers, engineers, and interested parents, what the 2013 FIRST robotics competition will be, spurring us into six frenzied weeks of designing, planning, and building a robot to take to competitions. First Atlanta, then the world! It must’ve been their plan all along.

The article in Wired, by Kevin Kelly, does have hints of cheekiness throughout, but for the most part is on target. How many of us already use computers or some kind of robotic devices to complete our jobs? Kelly points to the inevitable: robots can do it better. The upside is that when robots take away jobs they create new ones, like Charlie Bucket’s dad getting a job repairing the robot arm that took his job away at the toothpaste factory. If you don’t want a tech job, too bad. That’s what the new definition of work is becoming, since labor is already being taken over by robots. Those who can look far enough ahead can see robots doing, as Kelly puts it, any job. What makes this sound apocalyptic to me is the fact that we, as a society, undervalue education. What will the undereducated do? Their jobs are the first to go. I feel the tremors of a revolution that hasn’t even started yet. People need something to do.

It is apparently without irony that Kelly suggests that any job people do, including in the service industry, can be done by robots. I am an editor. A robot may be able to find grammatical errors (Word and Pages already do this), but they can’t capture the soul of a writer. We write for the enjoyment of other people who experience being people in the same way that we do. There is an inherent arrogance in the Artificial Intelligence movement that believes (yes, it is a belief) that intelligence and mind are the same thing. There is no room for a soul in this machine. Many biologists would agree: we’ve looked, no soul. But even biologists know that they’ve got an identity, aspirations, contradictions, and emotions. It is the unique blend of these things that make, what we can for convenience call, the soul. There are entire industries built around the care for that soul.

Many scientists are still betting on the end of religion, the ultimate repository of those who believe they have souls. Religion, however, is not going away. When we see robot psychiatrists, robot social workers, robot clergy, robot writers and artists, and robot Popes, we’ll know the apocalypse has truly transpired.

The Naked Vicar

In a fit of nostalgia, for lack of a better excuse, I recently re-watched A Room With a View. I suspect I saw it with my wife near the time it first came out since I had trouble recalling having viewed any of it before. Until the skinny-dipping scene. Even then, it was unfamiliar until Mr. Beebe, the vicar, jumped into the pond. Now perhaps in the Victorian era same-sex cavorting was permitted for the young, far from repressed eyes, but it was the implications of seeing a priest in the nude that was particularly jarring. As Lucy Honeychurch comes primly along with her fiancé, she is scandalized to see the boy she truly loves unclothed, but the minister in similar state is a laughing matter, a novelty. In the light of the many church scandals that have become public knowledge since 1985, this particular scene has perhaps accrued additional, unintended freight.

Embodiment is a popular topic for theologies these days. I’m no theologian, but as a member of the human race I do participate in the embodiment question. Everyone from biologists to psychologists seems to be rethinking the implications of the soft machine. Some theorists are already preparing to leave behind their bodies to have their consciousness electronically preserved. Their new bodies may be robotic or simply virtual, but I suspect they will find the experience deeply disappointing. We are closer to the cockroach and the goldfish than we are to the disembodied divine. Our bodies are who we are, and embodiment analysis is the attempt to make sense of it all. At the same time, some neuroscientists are speculating that human brains work perhaps in closer concert than we generally suppose. We human beings are more like cells in a great organism that encompasses all of us. The Portuguese Man O’ War, which resembles a human brain in some respects, is a communal organism and not a single creature. The implications are worth considering.

Our rules for getting along with biological bodies include some pretty straightforward permissible behaviors. We don’t penetrate the body of another person without their express approval. They have to be competent enough to give valid approval. We don’t end the existence of another human being’s life unless they’ve been convicted of being exceptionally naughty and they live in the United States (the only “first world” country where the death penalty is still routinely carried out) or unless we are mentally unstable or emotionally overwrought and have easy access to firearms. Bodies are limited, and so are brains. Although, since I’ve upgraded my operating system I notice that my laptop has now claimed my name as its own identity—(if anything looks weird, please let me know!) In the Victorian era it was assumed that the brains of the clergy were attuned to higher things. The naked vicar accepts the good-natured laugh at his expense because he is no threat to either young ladies or young men. In the technological era we are more savvy and less carefree. And given the choice, the religious would prefer a room without a view, thank you.

Brain Death

The computer revolution has spoiled some of the wonder associated with old films that had been formerly staged with cheap props and poorly written dialogue. (Well, computer literacy has not always improved the dialogue, in all fairness.) Nowhere is this more apparent in the science-fiction/horror genre where CGI has made the impossible pedestrian. There’s little we’re not capable of believing. Back in the fifties and early sixties when even color film often went over budget, some real groaners emerged. Over the weekend I watched one of the movies at the front of the class for poorly executed. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, is experiencing something of a renaissance with a stage musical coming out next month in New York based on this campy classic. Most horror movies don’t really scare me much, probably due to overexposure. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, creeped me out in an unexpected way. Daring toward exploitation status (the movie was shot in 1959 but not released for three years), the “protagonist” is Dr. Bill Cortner who specializes in transplants. When his girlfriend Jan is decapitated in an automobile accident, Cortner keeps her head alive while seeking a body onto which to transplant it. Ogling over girls in a strip club, or even stalking them from his car while they’re walking down the street, the doctor imagines what features he’d like grafted onto his girlfriend’s still living head.

Campy to a nearly fatal degree, the film is nevertheless disturbing on many levels simultaneously. Although I was born the year the film was released, I was raised to consider both genders as equal. The unadulterated sexism of a man grocery shopping for the body he wants stuck onto his girlfriend’s head was so repellant that I reached for the remote more than once. A bit of overwritten dialogue, however, stayed my hand. Kurt, the obligatorily deformed lab assistant, while arguing with Cortner declares that the human soul is part in the head, yet partially in the heart. By placing a head on another body, the soul is fractured. Now here was a piece of theological finesse unexpected in such a poverty of prose. The question of the location of the soul has long troubled theologians, an inquiry complicated by the growth of biological science. Heart transplants are common today, but the resulting people are in no way monstrous. The amorphous soul, theologians aver, is non-material yet resides within a specific biological entity. Some have even suggested that you can capture its departure by weighing a dying body at the moment of death. Others suggest no soul exists—it is a mere projection of consciousness. Cortner, however, once his eyes have opened the possibilities, can’t look back.

Our social consciousness has grown considerably since the late 1950s. Politicians and Tea Partiers who hold that era up as a paradigm of sanity do so at the price of half the human race. On the outside with the oiled hair, polished shoes, spotless automobiles, society seemed clean cut and orderly. Women, however, were relegated to inferior roles while men made the rules. Life was less complicated then. We knew who was in charge. Or did we? As a species that has evolved via sexual reproduction, it has taken us surprisingly long to realize that both genders are essential to humanity. We still tolerate gender disparity in pay scales, often shored up with the tired excuse that pregnancy and childbirth disrupt “productivity” and therefore female efforts are worth less than male—never changing due to biology. Such trumped-up excuses ring as hollow as a head without a body. Many Neo-Cons will even use the Bible to support it. John Q. Public (always male, please note), they insist, yearns for the “good old days.” The days they desire, however, were days of cheap horror and unrealistic dialogue. If they can watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die without flinching, our future is bleak indeed.

Out of the Depths

You’d think that a lifetime of theological study would be excellent training for repairing a toilet. If, however, you live in an old rental unit that has been ritually neglected for decades and that has a plumbing system designed by the Marquis de Sade’s evil twin, you’d soon think otherwise. All I tried to do was replace the flapper—something I learned how to do before leaving home. When the overflow tube snapped off, corroded all the way through at the bottom, I figured I’d just replace the unit. The bolts holding the toilet tank, however, were installed before Noah even built the ark and therefore wouldn’t budge. The leverage room for a wrench, is, of course, negligible. So it was, temperature about 100 degrees, no air-conditioning, no working toilet (bad combination) on a weekend, that I came to face the human condition once again.

As biological creatures, humans have constructed themselves a grand, spiritual universe that kindly overlooks the basics of daily living. Religion, in origin, seems to have had a survival value. Psychologists have suggested that the sense of hope that religions often project might have led to a stronger desire to thrive. Others have suggested religion is part of the curse of consciousness—aware of our own mortality, we attempt to overcome it like any other obstacle. Religion gives us the leg-up over pure biological existence. Unlike other creatures, many western religions assert, we survive our own deaths to face a (hopefully) better world beyond.

In the meantime, however, we are faced with a messy biological existence. Some of our compatriots in this venture stumble along the way and cannot meet the expectations like those who know how to work the system. Religions have traditionally dictated a moral imperative for those who are in positions of power to assist those who are weak. Of late, however, that has somehow shifted—at least in popular Christianity—to the overarching objective of looking out for one’s self. As a species we are all, rich and poor alike, constrained by the same biological necessities. It would speak well of our religious constructs should they reflect the same. As the temperature climbs once again, and I must face my plumbing nemesis, I realize that the metaphor may go deeper than I originally surmised.

The theologian's best friend

Goldilocks Comes of Age

NASA's Goldilocks, image credit Lynette Cook

“Even a simple single-cell bacteria or the equivalent of shower mold would shake perceptions about the uniqueness of life on earth.” So writes Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press concerning GJ581g, a newly discovered “Goldilocks planet.” This extra-solar-system planet is just the right distance from its sun, which is neither too hot nor too cold, and just the right size, neither too big nor too small, to hold an atmosphere and liquid water. This is the necessary environment for life as we know it to evolve. Like the life in the grout in my shower. It is an exciting prospect. This discovery suggests that other planets contain the right stuff for primordial soup, and the implication is, once again, that the earth must relinquish its place at the center of the known universe.

It is a curious notion that we share, quaintly parochial, that the earth is somehow special. The idea is an inherently religious one. Ancient peoples, beginning at least with the Sumerians, understood their world as apparent reality. The sky moves around us, not vice versa. Human beings, the apex of primate evolution, see the universe through self-crafted lenses. Lenses that we keep close to our eyes at all times. If there is life out there, and they come here, they will be the outsiders. We were here first. The Bible helps to shore up this homocentrism; the crowning achievement of divinity, according to Genesis 1, is us. Even scientists have long been reluctant to release the idea that we might just be one among many, a single, relatively common occurrence of life in a vast, indeed endless, universe.

Our species evolved as a religious one, feeling that God somehow gave us opposable thumbs and flexible vocal cords for a reason. (Presumably because God has opposable thumbs and flexible vocal cords.) From the very earliest of times we have considered ourselves unique on this planet and unique in this universe. Although reason has long suggested otherwise, and although scientists would often be the last to admit that it is a religious idea, we have grasped tightly to human singularity and defied the universe to prove us wrong. Once we actually discover that life out there, what will we do? If our past track record is any indication, we’ll head to that planet with Clorox in our hands and a divine mandate in our heads.

Clergy Letter Project

A few years back I had the privilege of working at the same university as Dr. Michael Zimmerman, currently a biology professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. In my temporary stint as a Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered that Dr. Zimmerman, then the Dean of the College of Letters and Science, was the very man responsible for the Clergy Letter Project. I had read about the project before; in an attempt to demonstrate that Creationism is not mainstream Christianity (nor science, for that matter), the Clergy Letter Project was attempting to acquire a few thousand signatures from the ordained of various denominations who were willing to admit that evolution posed no threat to their religion.

As an occupational hazard of someone with my background, I know many, many clergy. I offered to solicit some help in reaching the goal on the list and spent the rest of the semester contacting various sacerdotal practitioners who rightfully saw the Creationist ploy for what it was and continues to be. Creationism is nothing short of an attempt to break through the church and state separation clause and attain federal support for a particular religious viewpoint. That particular viewpoint is not shared by the majority of informed Christians, but the population is easily swayed by Creationist rhetoric. Creationists do not deserve sympathy, for they are much more aggressive than they pretend to be. Subterfuge in the cause of truth is a contradiction in ethics.

Religion may be hardwired into human brains, but it need not seek to pick fights with factual truth as it is learned. At each stage along the progression of human achievement, various religious believers have felt that the new knowledge discovered confronted their faith with unsurpassable barriers. Faith, however, is a belief system, not a factual construct. If faith requires proof, as even the Bible itself says, it is not really faith at all. If you know any clergy who are willing to sign on for common sense and belief in the rational world in which we find ourselves, please send them this link and ask them to weigh in on the question. Nearly 12,000 clergy have signed to date. There are even separate lists for Rabbinical and Unitarian-Universalist clergy. Don’t worry about the Creationists. They will always be back for more.

An early Creationist attempt at intelligent design

An early Creationist attempt at intelligent design