No, uh, It Won’t

Irony comes in all shapes and sizes.  Over the past several decades various fundamentalist groups have built replicas of what they believe to be life-size versions of Noah’s ark.  All of these are approximations because the cubit was never an exact measure.  Nobody knows what gopher wood was.  Most of them ignore the fact that the story of Noah clearly borrows from the more ancient Mesopotamian flood story where the measurements of the ark differ.  In any case, these arks—some containing dinosaurs and others not—are made for convincing people that Genesis is to be taken as history.  While there is some irony in that itself, the larger irony comes in the various proofs that are given that such things really would work to preserve all species since evolution could not have happened.  To work such models have to be seaworthy.

One such ark, according to the BBC, has been detained in Ipswich because it is unseaworthy.  An ark may be useful on dry land for drawing tourists, but would such a large boat work on the open ocean?  All of this brought to mind a Sun Pictures documentary from my younger days.  Giving the ark a makeover, various literalists re conceived the classic design from children’s Bibles to a more boxy, sturdy shape.  This was based on alleged encounters with the ark on Mt. Ararat.  To test this new design, the producers made a scale model and tested it in a pool of water and declared it eminently seaworthy.  Of course, there’s no way to make water molecules shrink to scale to test whether a full-sized ark could actually handle the stresses and strains of a world-wide flood.

Ship building is an ancient art.  Peoples such as the Phoenicians, the neighbors of ancient Israel, achieved some remarkable feats in ocean travel without the benefits of modern technology.  They didn’t have boats large enough to hold every species of animal that exists today, but they sure knew how to get around.  The real issue with literalism is the failure to recognize ancient stories for what they were—stories.  Such tales were told to make a point and the point was often obvious.  The obsession with history is a modern one—indeed, the ancients had no concept of history that matches what our current view is.  Borrowing and adapting a story was standard practice in those days.  Unaware that centuries later some religions would take their words as divine, they told stories that, in the round, just wouldn’t float.


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.


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.


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.


Who Watches You

When my wife saw Dominic Johnson’s God Is Watching You on the top of my pile she said “Are you sure you want to be reading that?”  Her question was justified, of course.  I was raised in a religion where the punishment of God was very much on the surface.  Heaven’s carrot was nothing next to Hell’s stick.  I still suffer from that religious outlook in innumerable ways.  Johnson’s subtitle, however, is How the Fear of God Makes Us Human.  Johnson, who holds doctorates in evolutionary biology and political science, is well placed to try to untangle what those of us with just one doctorate in religious studies deal with constantly: what is religion?  The main idea of the book is deceptively simple—we have evolved the way we have because we feared (and continue to fear) supernatural punishment.

Johnson establishes that sociological and anthropological studies have shown that humans respond much more readily to punishment than reward.  Reward is like icing—you can eat a cake without it and still enjoy it—while punishment is like the threat of all food being removed.  You see the difference?  One has a far greater motivating factor than the other.  This idea spins out into many aspects of religion, and even perhaps hints at the origins of religion itself.  I have often written on this blog that animals exhibit religious behavior.  We don’t speak their language so we can’t know for sure, but some of what various animals do seems very much like what we do in church, synagogue, mosque, or gurdwara.  Accusations of anthropomorphism fall flat, to me.  We evolved, did we not?  Then why do we resist pointing out in animals where that behavior sticks out like a sore opposable thumb?

Human societies worldwide share the fear of divine punishment.  Interestingly, even a significant portion of atheists admit fearing it too.  Often those who know me ask about my preoccupation with fear.  It sometimes shows in my writing about horror, but I think Johnson may well have the key in his pocket.  Religion is about fear.  It’s not just about fear, but it clearly is about avoiding divine (however defined) wrath.  Lose a job or two broadly defined as religious and disagree with me.  Am I sure that I should be reading this book?  Now that I’ve finished it I can definitively say “yes.”  While I don’t agree with everything in it Johnson has clearly hit on something that all people who study religion should know.


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.