Still Evolving

Evolution, the 2001 movie, I mean, is good escapism.  Thinking back on 2001, instead of a space oddessy, another piece of news—another national crisis, in fact, dominated.  The film kind of slumbered in the background until we could sort out what it meant to live in, ironically, an unsafe world.  That’s precisely what the movie was about.  I wasn’t thinking that when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I was simply wanting some fantasy to relieve the daily pressure of living in stress mode.  Besides, it has some of the best alien monsters you could hope for in a comedic setting.  Soon, however, the parallels began to appear.  A source of contamination from outside.  A growing threat.  A government that doesn’t know what to do and that can’t admit its mistakes.  It all seemed eerily familiar.  Dr. Allison Reed is even from the CDC.

Life isn’t constant crisis.  Funnily enough, when Democrats are in office there seem to be far fewer of these large-scale troubles.  “There will be signs,” I guess, “in the sun, moon, and stars.”  The thing about signs is that we’ve left the reading of them up to Fundamentalists.  And Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution.  Or science.  Or modernity.  Idealizing medieval thinking does come with a price tag.  So I reach for the remote.  While the government has lots of money that it spends on its own volition, the crisis grows.  The alien menace is set to spread across the country.  Although beginning in a different geographical location, all that red on the map sure looked familiar to me.  How little has changed in the last two decades.  Evolution came out before smartphones even evolved.

Meanwhile, practically unnoticed, the U.S. Navy has been saying UFOs are real.  The story, muted and subdued—we’ve got more immediate concerns, such as getting reelected—has been on major reputable media.  When they land on the White House lawn we’ll ask the aliens if they have respirators and masks aboard.  Preferably the kind with face-shields.  In the movie the monsters are aliens.  They’re like an infection, and even hazmat suits can’t keep you safe.  The solution, of course, isn’t fire-power, but a good shampooing.  Now I know you still can’t go to the salon in lots of places, but washing up at home seems to be pretty good advice.  We put the movie on for simple escapism, but there’s no escaping the fact that we now live in an alien environment.

Seeking Reality

I spend a lot of time struggling to figure out the fundamental basis of reality.  I’m hampered in this by a brain that was evolved—optimized—to help me survive in my environment, not to penetrate the depths of what’s really real.  That’s why I began studying religion in the first place.  The connection was organic.  Raised as a fundamentalist daily reminded that an eternal hell of torment awaited, it made sense to study the antidote (the Bible) as much as possible.  When I prepared for college, which wasn’t the plan at the beginning, I could think of no other major beyond religion.  In Paul Tillich’s nomenclature, it’s all about ultimate concerns.  I didn’t accept the very evolution that had made me this way.  That required thinking through.  

Attending a liberal arts college wasn’t really a conscious decision.  Nobody in my family had been to college and I didn’t know the difference between a research university and a stand-alone liberal arts institution.  Somebody has to teach you these things.  Religion, I found out, is a pretty good way to work toward perceptions of reality.  These days the award for that goes to philosophy, but the two fields are closely related, as much as philosophers socially distance themselves from theologians.  They’re both seeking the same thing, really.  Public perceptions of theology, however, trail after televangelists and their ilk, leading a wrong impression in the minds of the masses.  Even professors are prone to accept this facile supposition.  Seeking reality doesn’t mean you won’t get laughed at along the way.

Although there have been some among religious leaders who claim to have found the answer, the rest of us continue to struggle.  The more I read both of science and of religion the more complex it all seems to grow.  And of course human agendas require the keeping of secrets.  Knowledge that is for employees only because they kind of have to know.  The price on the sticker represents a mark-up that could be cut down.  What is this item really worth?  So it goes with the search for reality.  There’s no end to the searching.  Even after Siddhārtha Gautama was enlightened, he continued to have to work at it.  Christianity used to teach that love was the point of it all.  That message seems to have changed with the arrival of the messiah known as Trump.  Those of us who can’t stop searching even if we find can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more worthy on which to spend our time.

Denying Reality

The science-deniers in the White House have had to accommodate themselves to evidence-based facts and they look none too happy about it.  Science denial has a long and venerable history in a certain type of evangelicalism.  Science teaches us that most things are more complex than they seem and this is also true of religions.  There are evangelicals all over the board, but those claiming the name most loudly have been outspoken Trump supporters.  The administration has had a three-year spree of decrying science and now that a very real virus is killing us they have no choice but to listen, albeit reluctantly.  So why do certain strains of evangelicalism deny science?  Is it all for profit?  Is there some kind of biblical mandate?

As someone who spent many years making a living as a biblical scholar (and it still plays into my work), I often think about this.  There is the underlying reliance on miracle as opposed to naturalism, for sure.  If God can do anything then science is ever only contingent.  Any moment a miracle (a word that doesn’t occur in the Bible, by the way) could happen and there’d be no way to measure it.  The main reason, however, goes back to Genesis and its creation stories.  When you read a book first impressions are important.  The Good Book begins with a theological account that eventually came to be taken literally.  It’s as if someone decided to live by a poem, taken as fact.  Some things can’t be expressed except with metaphorical language.  But since this creation takes place up front, any challenge to it is an affront to the Almighty.

The antagonism set up by Darwin’s discovery of evolution set the whole confrontation in motion.  Evangelicals in the late 1800s were feeling pushed into the corner by the overwhelming evidence that the creation accounts in Genesis were not factual.  This insult to miracle has simmered for well over a century—the Scopes trial, well into this period, took place 95 years ago.  Fear that the Bible’s loss of science authority might somehow lessen its spiritual message became a ditch in which to die.  Big business learned, back in the seventies, that evangelicals made great followers and could constitute a voting bloc if only a cause could be raised around which they’d rally.  We all know what that was.  That issue has led to the denial of science and the acceptance of anyone ill-informed enough to accept such denial.  Only after learning that you must fight pandemics with science has the White House had to start changing its story.  When it’s all over, however, it will go right back to denying everything.

Families in Trees

Genealogy is one of those things that’s fascinating as long as it’s yours.  It’s not hard to lose a few (or many) hours, trying to find ancestral connections.  When someone you don’t know begins to tell you, however, about other people you’ve never heard of, your eyes begin to glaze over.  My wife kindly gave me a gift of a local genealogy class that we attended the other day.  Along with some dozen others we gathered to learn some tricks of the trade.  The presenter began by having us introduce ourselves, “briefly.”  It’s a dangerous move in a genealogical crowd.  A few of our fellow students went into great detail about their ancestors, forgetting, for the moment, that we were there to learn how to do the research, not to find out about their families.  It’s a natural enough mistake.

None of us ask to be born, and we spend our lives wondering why we are here.  How did our parents meet?  Where were they from?  What did they do?  And the generation before that?  Some time ago I figured out that, due to the exponential nature of ancestors, that by the time you get back to just eight “greats” before for your grandparents, it took over a thousand people to make you.  It boggles the mind.  Suddenly it seems as if there would never be enough chance encounters or arranged marriages or tumbles in the hay for you to ever get here.  So many ancestors!  By the time I was in college I’d managed to trace it back to almost sixteen family names.  I was able to break through a barrier on this just over a year ago when talking to some family members about a lost ancestor at the turn of the twentieth century.  Genealogy is a search for meaning.

Both my wife and I share this interest.  Of the dozen or so others at the session, four others were married couples.  Almost all of us had done the voluntary DNA test to find our nations of origins—to confirm or deny family stories.  And that’s what it’s really about: stories.  Although we may be squeamish about some aspects, we want to know where we came from, the story of how we arrived here.  As if there’s some cosmic clue in it that gives us information on why we’re here.  It brought several of us out on a February afternoon.  We didn’t know each other.  If we traced back far enough, however, we would have found we were all related.  We are all family.

Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.

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.