Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Size and Its Matters

Have you ever wondered where your Bible came from? No, I mean physically. There are many possible answers to such a query, so the other day I was searching for Bible printers on the web. A great many Bibles are printed by Royal Jongbloed, in the Netherlands. They specialize in the super-thin paper used in much Bible printing. The reason the paper is thin is purely pragmatic. The Bible is an economy-sized book and if printed with “regular” paper it would be large and unwieldy—something desirable only by those with nefarious purposes, I suspect. Bible paper, by the way, was developed originally by Oxford University Press. And in case you’re wondering, the convention of printing Bibles in two-column format is also a space-saving convention. So I was looking over the Jongbloed site, wondering if they’re nervous at all about the increase of Nones. Then I remembered that in many parts of the world Christianity is actually growing, so there should be security in the Bible printing market for some time.

The Netherlands had a large role to play in the development of Protestantism and its love of the Bible. Many English non-conformists found it a welcoming place. Bibles were welcome. But Bibles aren’t all that Jongbloed does. They print scientific manuals too. Now that caught my attention. There’s nothing mercenary going on here—some scientific manuals are really big and are printed on (of all ironies) Bible paper. Is there some kind of conflict on interest going on here? I mean, which is it—science or religion? Or maybe there’s a third way. Maybe it’s not an either/or proposition. Maybe Occam shaves a little too closely.

The craziness flooding out of the District of Columbia has us all worried. Science is being attacked. If you’re being attacked you look around for your enemies. Religion! But wait, is religion really science’s enemy? How easy it is to forget that science developed from alchemy and astrology, both religious practices. Even today many scientists see no inherent disagreement between the two. If we want to be effective in warding off the pressing insanity we need to realize who the real enemy is. Science and religion can both be honest searches for the truth of this universe we inhabit. No, the natural enemy of science is personal greed. It’s also, if we take any kind of religion at it’s word, the enemy of religion as well. What we see bursting the floodgates of Foggy Bottom is the desire for personal gain cloaked as governance for the masses. We should never forget that the Netherlands facilitated a movement that changed everything. Besides, it’s just too expensive to print Bibles in a land badly in need of a Reformation.

Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?

Two Outlooks

SexInTheBibleThe word polymath used to be applied more easily. In these days of highly specialized training, it is difficult to have expert knowledge in more than a couple of areas. The two areas, sexuality and scripture, dealt with in J. Harold Ellens’s Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, are such zones of specialization. Students of the Bible have recently begun an intensive exploration of how sex fit into the ancient worldview. Ellens’s book surveys all of the biblical legislation about sexual matters and a fair number of the stories involving the same, with the sensitivity of a professional counselor. Indeed, his practical knowledge of human sexual development and psychological needs based on it should inform society’s understanding of scripture. The Bible is no pristine book. Neither is it a romance novel. Still, ancient people were not as shy about sex as post-Victorians tend to be. The Bible is often frank on the subject.

The main danger of a project like this is trying to decide where to take the Bible literally and where not. Ellens, while he has some training as a biblical scholar, falls into a familiar trap. He assumes, as parts of the Bible do, that Israel’s neighbors were sexually depraved. Not only did they condone things like bestiality, according to Ellens, but they incorporated sexual deviancy into their worship. Ancient records, readily available for decades, give the lie to that outlook. Ellens makes the case that biblical writers had no way of knowing, however, that homosexuality, for example, is a biological predisposition that can’t be changed at will. Other sexual practices that are now considered normal and healthy were perversions in the biblical period. Medical science should inform our understanding of Holy Writ.

This is an argument Ellens can’t win. Passionate though he may be about how all of this just makes sense from a scientifically informed point of view, the fact can’t be changed that the Bible does condemn some sex acts outright. Even more damaging, in my opinion, is that the Bible clearly views women as the sexual property of men, and men regulate the sexuality of their females. Anyone arguing that the Bible is a moral guidebook in regard to sexual mores must face this issue head on. There’s no tip-toeing around it, even with verified psychological pedigree. The Bible is the product of a patriarchal structure that did not tolerate sexual practice outside prescribed limits. We now understand the same behaviors from a scientific point of view, but the written text doesn’t change. It is just that dilemma that makes it very difficult to be an expert on two fields so diverse as sexuality and biblical studies.