Moralizing Gods

In my more radical moods I sing along with John Cougar about fighting authority.  Living in society means never being completely free.  This pandemic only amplifies that.  What I want may not be best for others.  Not to mention excessively corrupt authority *ahem* Washington DC [coughs into elbow].  Still, a friend sent me an article titled “Did judgmental gods help societies grow?  The piece by Lizzie Wade appeared in Science recently.  The article begins by noting that judgmental gods are rare.  It then suggests complex societies seem to have had judgmental gods at their beginnings.  Moralizing gods demand cooperation.  People want to do what they want.  If we’re going to reap the benefits of a highly specialized society we all need to play our part, however.  Authority always does win, I guess.

Wade’s article suggests that this kind of orthodoxy is now being called into question.  Moralizing gods, it’s suggested, appear after a complex society gets started.  Interestingly, these gods tend to be males.  (That point’s mine, not Wade’s.)  I have been wondering for quite some time just how the data from Göbekli Tepe will influence the re-construction of models concerning how civilization began.  It seems that long before settled populations emerged, back in hunter-gatherer days, people still came together to build temples.  Were they afraid of judgmental gods?  Certainly they thought it was important to gather occasionally at numinous places and ponder the larger questions.  Since they left no written records and they’ve all died out the best we can do is make educated guesses.  Who knows what might’ve been their motivation?

The one thing that seems certain to me, no matter how we nuance it, is that religion is integral to society.  Science is necessary for our survival (ancient people weren’t backward rubes, by the way—they had a kind of scientific outlook, but without all the advanced math).  Religion, however, seems originally to have brought us together.  Outside our comfort zones.  Hunter-gatherer societies limit their sizes to people you can know reasonably well.  They tend not to have private property and they share things most people in “civilized” settings wouldn’t.  To grow larger than a roving band that can sustain itself by moving from place to place once the food’s gone, agriculture was necessary.  But Göbekli Tepe suggests it only followed after religion began bringing people together in the first place.  Were their gods authoritarian?  There’s really no way of knowing that.  So when I’m feeling radical I have to remember than when it’s over I turn the volume down, comb my hair and go back into society.  Well, once the pandemic’s over.

Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.

Plain Speaking

When the president of the United States utters words too vulgar to print here, I think of the old They Might Be Giants’ song “Your Racist Friend.” The song is all about the indefensibleness of racism. We knew that back in the 1980s. What has made it acceptable now, in the highest office in the land? The fact that Trump is a racist was known to most of us well before he was “elected.” And, of course, the Republicans stand beside him. I feel sorry for the GOP, I really do. Those who simply wanted a fiscally conservative leader (wrongheaded in my view, but understandable) decided to go with a man who would want to revisit 1776, if he knew the meaning of the date, to ensure that this would always be white-man’s land. Hear this Republicans—by standing by Trump now you’re declaring, “He’s only saying what I’m thinking.” There’s no way to defend what he’s said about Africa, along with several nations elsewhere.

As we watch this bizarre space opera of an administration do its best pratfalls we don’t even have to go back all the way to the 1770s to wonder what went wrong. Bill Clinton was impeached for having an extramarital affair in the 1990s. Less than 30 years later we have a misogynistic, racist bully who’s on his third wife running this country like a casino. And the “Party of Lincoln” laps it up. They refuse to censure anything this bumbling excuse for a leader does. They’d be embarrassed, of course, but they haven’t considered, and refuse to consider, the consequences. I’m wondering what the musical 2016 will be like, but I have a guess.

As the Russia probe gets closer, the GOP tries to shut it down. That’s how we handle facts we don’t like now. Who would’ve thought that three decades on we’d be saying “mere adultery” was grounds for impeachment? Perhaps there were good people on both sides of that affair too. Science has demonstrated that “race” is a fiction, a human construct. But science no longer matters. Anything we disagree with we call “fake news” and FOX will be there to slurp it up and spew it wide. As Friday unfolded after 45’s statement about the status of an entire continent, his verbal incontinence still dribbling, his party rushed to defend “what he really meant.” What he really meant, he said. And what he said, if you don’t denounce him, is what you’re thinking too.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Ghosts

Universities find themselves in a strange position vis-à-vis the supernatural. I suspect that many institutions of higher education are slightly embarrassed at the fact that universities began primarily as training grounds for clergy. We’ve moved away from all that superstition and now believe that only science leads to knowledge. That’s why I find the University of Virginia’s magazine article on ghosts so refreshing. We all know better than to expect a straight answer from academics faced with the awkward question of belief, but the campus magazine invited six department representatives to a discourse on ghosts. The article, which can be accessed online, asked Art History, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Literature, Neurology, and Archaeology faculty about ghosts. At least they were willing to talk about the subject.

Edgar Allan Poe's room at the University of Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe’s room at the University of Virginia

Even in this world where skeptical ridicule is an accepted part of academic practice, we can’t quite let go of the idea of ghosts. They are among the most ancient of beliefs, and even despite the proliferation of apps that let you add specters for any occasion of selfie or digital shot, people still see them often enough to make academics wonder what is going on. Since science only studies that which can be measured, we suppose ghosts lie outside that realm. Those who’ve popularized “scientific” approaches to ghost hunting on television don’t bring their scientific credentials to the discussion. Anyone can be taught to use technology. (Well, not anyone—I sometimes still find my computer at complete odds with me. Technically, however, it is just an inert piece of matter.) From time to time serious scientists have turned their attention to ghosts. Results have been inconclusive.

As the leaves are beginning to fall, and the temperature follows suit, we know that many months of long nights lie ahead. Trees without leaves and air without warmth tempt our minds to believe that perhaps the microscope can’t reveal all that exists in this world. Halloween, after all, has become a major spending holiday and that assures its veracity. Driving through town, it is clear that it is quite an investment for some. Down in Charlottesville they are hunched over their desks, writing lecture notes and grading papers. As the wind blows that empty branch against your window on a overcast evening, however, it won’t matter what department you call home. There will be ghosts about tonight.

Material to Ponder

EndOfMaterialismFrom my youngest days I remember wanting to be a scientist. This desire was tempered with a real fear of Hell and wish to please. In my career, it seems, the latter won out. Well, mostly. I never planned on being an editor, but it was clear that I missed the hard-core science courses and would always lack scientific credibility. You see, I believed what scientists said, and that included science teachers in high school. To this day I still believe in the back of my mind that you can’t really see atoms with a microscope. One of my teachers had said it was impossible, and although electron microscopes were still a long way off, it was clear that atoms were just too small. The force of materialism first hit me in ninth grade physics. If what I was hearing was true, then if you had enough information, you could figure out the whole universe. But what of Hell?

I read Charles T. Tart’s The End of Materialism because of my need for reassurance. Materialism leaves me cold. To find a scientist who feels the same way is a bonus. Not all authorities agree that we’re just excited atoms that can be seen. Tart is willing to consider the spiritual as part of what the evidence reveals. He explores it in the context of psi rather than in the doomed attempt to test religions empirically, but he does make a case for more to this universe than Horatio’s philosophy ever dared dream. And some of that more is decidedly not physical. It’s what we know from our experience of the world. We don’t only reason, we also feel. I have to wonder if reason is really the friend of materialism after all.

You can’t walk across Manhattan without seeing an ambulance most days. Often they’re called out to collect some unfortunate homeless person who collapses from our collective neglect. If we are only matter, then why do we bother to assist those in distress? It’s just a little electricity and some chemicals in a biological organ, right? Consciousness is only an illusion, after all. Unless, of course, the person suffering is a prominent scientist. Then we should all make way for the ambulance lest we lose an asset of great value. Materialism is insidious in its take-no-captives mentality. Feel what you will, there’s nothing more to life than physical stuff. You can make a good living believing that. Why is it that I’m suddenly thinking of Hell again?

Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

Global Warning

“Sticks and stones,” the childhood wisdom goes, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We were taught that little mantra as a response to being teased by bullies. But words can and do hurt. They can even be lethal. Although I’ve come to realize that specific words are inherently neither good nor bad, I’m still a little shy around some of them. The website known, euphemistically, as “IFL Science!” contains an f-bomb that sometimes makes me wary—what’s wrong with just regularly loving science? In any case, perhaps this adverbial use of the most versatile swear word is intended to make the website a bit of racy fun. The posts are often very good. So it was that I recently read a story about “Friends of Science.” This group, it seems, is paying good money to convince the scientifically illiterate that global warming is natural, caused by the sun and not emissions, and so we should just chill. IFL Science! points out that the group, however, receives money from petroleum companies. Sticks and stones.

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On my way to work this week, I noticed how many of the ads in ebullient, affluent Midtown Manhattan reflect dark shows and movies. It’s summertime, when we expect bright colors and sunny weather. Has it, perhaps, been too sunny? The best selling non-fiction book over the past few weeks has been on economic inequality and how it will lead to a good, old-fashioned primate crash. Going ape-crap on the bullies. Our species doesn’t tolerate radical unfairness for long. Those who suck money from under the ground may not fracking care about the rest of us, but they sure pull in the big money. Big enough to buy the truth. Our emissions, they seem to say, don’t stink. And that weird weather you’ve been noticing for the past decade or so? That’s normal. Words will never harm me.

Global warming is a reality.

Oligarchy comes in many forms, the most insidious of which is the benign overlord. The implied subtext is “if I am smart enough to make all this money, I must surely be smart enough to decide what’s best for everyone.” Call it the gold standard of hypocrisy. In an increasingly secular society where the rewards of heaven devolve to what we can grab on earth, this might even be called a kind of theology. We all know that public policy and federal laws can be purchased, if we call it lobbying. Or election fund donations. The truth it seems, is up for sale. Call it Friends of Science—the name says it all. And if we’re tempted to add our own epithets, it might pay to ask what harm can words really do?

Witches in History

History of WitchcraftIn a rationalistic society, the concept of witches has no place. If only we knew what witches were. Sadly fascinated by the unfortunate—evil would be the more appropriate word—victimization of women in the late Middle Ages as partners of the Devil, I read Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander’s time-honored study, A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. With its bold pentagram on the cover, I’d been afraid to take this on the bus, and so it sat in my reading pile until I figured out a way of keeping the cover from view while I perused the contents. The authors wisely spend the introduction with definitions. We define our world through lenses. For the most part, people today use the lens of science, as if that were the only way to view the universe. Still, even with that polished glass in hand, we have a difficult time knowing what “witch” is supposed to designate. Russell and Alexander suggest that it changes over time.

No doubt, witches still exist. The recognition of Wicca as an authentic religion (for tax purposes, the only true measure of a religion’s bona fides) demonstrates that. The problem is that Wicca is not in any sense a direct continuation of the witch hysteria that swept Europe, and parts of New England, centuries ago. As A History of Witchcraft demonstrates, this was a religion practiced by no one, but imagined, and feared, by many. Particularly men. Particularly religious men who had problems with women harboring hidden powers. It was a full-blown and horrible fantasy that led to many thousands dying for a religion that didn’t even exist. Modern witchcraft began in the 1930s and has become a nature religion that sees itself connected to that past, but which really only touches at the very edges.

Witchcraft was a way of looking at the world that saw all things as intimately connected. Russell and Alexander point out the similarity to chaos theory with its butterfly effect. We do see effects at a distance. Science tries to make them less spooky. Those who practiced witchcraft in ancient times, before the Middle Ages could even be dreamed, tried to bring such forces under human control. If some anthropologists are to be believed, some may have succeeded. This idea pulls at our darkest fears. Can we accept a world where we are manipulated by others in unseen ways? It happens every day. Not by spells or incantations, but by forces far more powerful than that. You don’t need to be a witch to see it. You only need to open your eyes.

Do You Mind?

TheScienceDelusionSeems a lot of people are deluded these days. I know I am. Still, every great once in a while I read a book that helps me cope with the morass of everyday life in a way so profound that I feel elated. At least until I get to work. One of those books I cannot commend highly enough. Curtis White’s The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers is epiphanic. Not your typical (generally faith-based) objection to the New Atheist phenomenon, White asks more fundamental, and indeed, logical, questions. And he’s incredibly fun to read. Starting with the conundrum that often goes unspoken, White demonstrates that even the scientists among the New Atheists ascribe to immaterial value judgments without thinking through the implications. Having jettisoned religion, philosophy—the whole of the humanities, in general, as pointless, non-empirical window-dressing, even the greatest lights still claim their tenets. As White illustrates, stars cannot be beautiful without a concept of beauty. Beauty cannot be quantified, and is therefore beyond the empirical method. One could say it’s in the eye of the beholder, but science is uncomfortable with metaphors as well.

Materialism, often in league with politics and power-mongers, fails to account for much of human experience. The real danger, as White demonstrates, is when society simply accepts it because it comes from a white lab-coat. White, along with most of non-materialists, is not anti-science. Science clearly describes, in a pretty close approximation, the physical world we know. At least in the New Atheist camp, however, it doesn’t stop there. The take-no-survivors attitude causes problems because it is hoisted on its own petard of logic. The mind that is attempting to puzzle out science is immaterial. Mind does not equal brain. The cause and the result are easily confused. Flush with neuroscience’s success of describing the brain, we assume that science can also explain things as inexplicable as the nature of light, quantum mechanics, black holes, or the Tea Party.

White is not shy of talking about the elephant in the room. Consciousness is not a material phenomenon. If you are reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We are self-aware creatures. So seem to be some other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. If our minds could be quantified a lot of psychologist’s couches would be empty. Chemicals may affect the working of our brains and influence the performance of our minds, but when they wear off, it is still yourself staring back from the mirror the morning after. Those of us who spend our lives pursuing the humanities generally don’t try to take over science. It is very good at what it does. The world as we experience it—even the use of the word “experience” itself—is, however, more than physical. Even the New Atheists dream, and hope, and love. No matter what they may say, there is an inherent beauty in that.

Tempting Truth

Recently I was discussing the internet with friends. Real ones, I mean, physically in the room with me. One asked if the internet made conspiracy theories more believable. My response was that the internet has changed truth. That probably seems like a bold statement, I know. Truth, however, is an abstract very difficult to pin down. Science, for starters, does not deliver truth. Science is theoretical, and since it is falsifiable, a scientific theory, while based on facts, is always contingent; it is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Scientists generally know not to conflate this with truth, deferring the latter to the realm of philosophy. The average person probably conceives of truth as that which is literally real. Reality itself is, however, a very slippery concept—quantum physics reveals realities where many are not comfortable going, and which very few truly understand. Truth is a philosophical concept that reflects what humanity collectively accepts to be reality. It is in this sense that the internet has changed truth. It is the Wikipedification of the mind.

People, for as long as they’ve had the luxury to consider abstracts, have struggled with the question of truth. For a few centuries—almost a couple of millennia—in much of the western world, the Bible was considered a source of truth. If it was in there, it was true. The source of authority here was that of a deity who oversaw the writing of the Bible, word by sacred word. When science began to demonstrate that this Weltanschuung was untenable, people realized that truth was a bit more complex. When westerners came into contact with other religions, the complexity grew. Large swaths of humanity believed things completely different from the rest of us. What was the truth? A rear-guard action was often the result. Those who had the Bible had the truth already, and since truth doesn’t change, what more was there to be said.

Truth or dare?

Truth or dare?

The internet is not yet a mature adult, but an entire generation has now grown to a kind of maturity with it. It is the first line of recourse for true information. Who has a phonebook in their house anymore? When is the last time you opened a physical dictionary? Some of us routinely look up Bible verses online, since the internet is the ultimate concordance. Instead of turning to the Bible, or any other source, we turn to the collective “wisdom” of humanity as the measure of what is true. Snopes aside, we plow ahead with what we read online, confident that with all those millions of users, we just can’t be wrong. How strange a concept to unplug and look at the actual reality behind the screen. We might be surprised to learn that there are great and terrible wizards back there after all.

The Weather in Kansas

In a move that threatens intellectual whiplash, the Kansas State Board of Education has backed the Next Generation Science Standards. For a state historically at war with evolution, adopting a curriculum that (rightly) presents evolution and global warming as facts, there is cause for hope. As an average citizen sometimes just struggling to get by, I watch in stunned horror as our elected officials try to repeal Obamacare without touching their own health plans paid for by yours truly (and mine truly). I see them vote themselves pay raises while pension plans and salaries of ordinary citizens are frozen. I know where the buck actually does stop. So it is strangely encouraging to see a state that has declared war on science beginning to realize that yes, the truth does have consequences.

Science does not necessarily have all the answers, but it is the best that we know. The empirical method works, and our healthcare, transportation, and communication have all benefited enormously by it. Our way of life has grown easier because of our application of evolution and its ways to our understanding of microbes and the ways to hold off their attacks. Science has been warning us since I was a high schooler, over three decades ago, that our industrialization has been causing grave changes to our ecosystem. Unfortunately, those with money to make from it can simply afford to move to higher ground. Kansas is among the Great Plains states. It is wise to recognize that global warming threatens those who live close to the earth most of all.

The intolerance to science is not simply a religious reaction, as some would characterize it. Religion may be used in the interest of business. And any savvy entrepreneur knows, and exploits that fact. It matters not a jot or tittle if you evolved from a common ancestor with the apes, as long as you can climb, like King Kong, to the highest towers and look down on all the rest of humanity. The water from melting ice caps may be rising below, but the Great Ape need not worry. Until it becomes clear that without the little guys down below, even the top monkey is nobody.

NotInKansas

Intelligence, Evolved

intelligenceinnatureAnyone who has looked into the eyes of a cat or dog can have little doubt that they think. What exactly they think is, of course, a matter of conjecture. I had been meaning to read Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature for a few years now. We are taught at a young age to eschew anthropomorphism—although our eschewers don’t use that word—as the childish way of perceiving the world. Animals don’t think because that’s reserved for people. We sit in the finest spots in the poshest corners of the animal kingdom and the sign says “No Dogs Allowed.” I never really outgrew this child-like belief because the minimal scientific evidence I’ve been able to infer supports the idea that like us, other animals think. Narby, an anthropologist, agrees. At least to a point. I don’t wish to make claims for Dr. Narby that he wouldn’t support, but he provides fascinating empirical evidence, “down” to the level of amebas and plants, that indicates intentionality. Nature is alive with thought.

As an anthropologist, Narby begins his consideration with the insights of shamans. Although scientists rarely countenance shamans, they are among the earliest of human religious specialists and they have long promoted the idea that humans are fully integrated into nature. We are not separate and above. From our brains to our bones, we are one with the natural world. If we think, should not animals think? Interestingly, this idea brings Narby into some of the same territory as Thomas Nagel; intelligence may be a cumulative process. Our brains’ ability to think may be the result of collecting together the thought processes of our fellow creatures to a point where our thinking becomes abstract. We’re told that dolphins and whales don’t think like us—they don’t build cities, do they? Maybe it’s because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter than we are.

There are, it seems, many thinkers on the outside of the hallowed confines of hard science that are chipping away at the strict materialist edifice. There can be no serious question that the empirical method explains much of what we experience in the universe. It has always amazed me, however, that we assume that humans are able to find the outer limits of existence with our limited senses. We know animals can see, hear, smell, taste, and maybe even feel in ways beyond our capabilities. Who’s to say that there isn’t other input well beyond our limited senses that we use to survive in this environment? After all, we didn’t evolve to know everything—we evolved to be able to thrive in our ecosystems. For that you don’t need all the answers—just enough to get by. If you doubt my reasoning here, I suggest you ask your dog or cat.

Animal Mentalism

SciAmScience is how we know things. Most things, at least. One of the fundamental aspects of human life not yet grasped by the great empirical method is creativity. We generally have an idea how it works, but, like so much of human experience, it is difficult to describe precisely. When I saw this month’s Scientific American fronting with the headline “Evolution of Creativity”—two of my favorite topics—I knew I’d have to read it. The article by Heather Pringle zeroes in on the archaeology of very early human history. Before modern human, actually. I’d been telling students for years that the development of such traits as artistic representation, burial, music, and an awareness of some forces “out there” could be found tens of thousands of years ago. These, I suggested, marked the beginnings of religious sensibilities. I’d be willing to go even farther, however, and suggest that we share some of these traits with our fellow creatures. Religion may have a biological basis. That’s not where Pringle is going, however, and she addresses not religion, but creativity.

Pringle suggests that evidence for human technology—modest though it may be—stretches back further than the 40K epoch that seemed to house an explosion of human innovation. She shows how sophisticated knowledge of the environment and corresponding innovations were occurring 77,000 years ago, and even earlier. Some of it stretches back before Homo sapiens; stone weapons may be as early as Homo heidelbergensis and kindling fire as early as Homo erectus. Even our Australopithicene cousins seem to have been happily knapping stones two-and-a-half million years ago. The evidence, at the moment, seems to end there. I wonder, however, how far back cognitive development goes. We tend to underestimate the thinking abilities of animals, despite our constant surprise at how smart they seem to be. How very human! How very male, to assume that everything else is here for our use and pleasure.

Scientists often come upon with astonishment ideas that creative folks have been pondering for centuries. Science must be careful—that is one of its limitations. Creativity, the phenomenon Pringle explores, contains, in the words of Lyn Wadley’s team in Science, chemistry and alchemy. Creativity, like religion, isn’t afraid of magic. No doubt, some scientists will claim that true intelligence only begins with humanity. Looking at the way we treat each other, sometimes I doubt that it begins even there. If there is any hope for us, I would humbly suggest, it will come in the form of creativity. It is that very alchemy that keeps me coming back to science, and science will teach us, eventually, that animals are creative too. When we place ourselves among them, we will have created a world.

Continental Drift

So this is the way epiphany works. (I know it’s Lent, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.) I sat down to check my personal email after a horrid day at work, and since I have a Verizon account, I can’t help but see the news headline that’s on the page when I open it. When the headline said something about a new continent discovered by scientists under the ocean, I’ll have to admit that Atlantis sounded better than anything I’d heard in the office. So it was worth a click.

Athanasius_Kircher's_Atlantis

Turns out that this isn’t Atlantis at all—I have this habit of making naive assumptions—but a continent just north of Madagascar that sunk some nine million years ago. No happy lemurs or Homo sapiens around then. So when this Atlantis sank, there was nobody around to see it. At least not Plato.

The story was broadcast by Newsy and it made mention of Science World Report. Here’s where the epiphany piphed. I’d never heard of Science World Report. When I went to their site, the wonders of the universe spread out before me. “Dying Stars Reveal the Clue to Extraterrestrial Life: Earth-like Planets Unmasked” read one headline. “How Dinosaurs Evolved the World’s Longest Necks While Giraffes Fell Short.” These are the things I need to brighten me after a rotten day. A world with wonder in it. A world where money is not the sole, or even the highest good. A world where an intellect need not go to waste.

“Human Language May Have Evolved from Birdsong: New Meaning for Communication.” This website is like my eternal monologue in headline format. I’m not naive enough to suppose this website will be the nepenthe for all my workaday woes. But it does serve to remind me that science and religion are not always foes. A religion only becomes belligerent when it takes its truisms too seriously. We evolved in a world of wonder, but we’ve taken great care to remove the wonder from it. As if joy and delight were puerile phantasms with no place in the serious adult world of finance and industry.

I became an educator because I’ve always been in love with ideas. I lost my job in education because I was an idealist. Yes, continents do indeed sink. And while it may not be Atlantis down there, a simple click led me to a world of wonder. And that is, if anything can be, cause for hope.

A Cougar’s Mother

While on a stroll between appointments at Indiana University in Bloomington, I came across a tree with flowers laid underneath and a memorial plaque at its base. I glimpsed the name Mellencamp, and for a fan of rock, it didn’t take much imagination to tie it to John Cougar. Indeed, the memorial is dedicated to his mother, an artist, who died earlier this year. I first came to know of Indiana University because of music. I married a musician who, like myself, had to sacrifice a career doing what she loved in order to “get by.” Although she hadn’t studied at Indiana, my wife knew the reputation of the campus well. At a sunny moment between appointments I sat outside one of the music buildings listening to students practice through the open windows and read about Marilyn Mellencamp. An article in a local paper explains that this week an exhibition of her art is on display in Bloomington. When I read the quote from Waldron Arts Center Gallery Director Julie Roberts that the arts “are viable ways to make a living and they are vital part of being a happy and alive person,” I felt a renewed sense of hope. There are others, it is clear, who see that the arts are called the humanities for a reason. In a culture where only money matters, there is no culture. Think about it.

Since the industrial revolution we’ve been told that the measure of a human is how much money they are able to make. Something profound has been lost since then as great universities cut programs for the arts and humanities while business departments build new facilities. Talk about gaining the world but losing your soul—business cattily replies, “I have no soul.” While John Mellencamp never rivaled the biggest bands for income, his work, particularly Scarecrow, is full of human empathy. I listened to that album over and over in 1985, recounting the farm crisis and the demise of those not driven by corporate greed. And looking at this maple tree I wonder when the last time was that someone honestly mourned the death of a corporate mogul.

It is the mark of a deeply schizophrenic society that we all aspire to what fails to inspire. Our economy is driven by the material—money—and not that which speaks profoundly to what it means to be a human being. We keep the arts alive because the wealthy require something worthwhile upon which to spend their lucre. Is not buying art buying part of another person’s soul? We can’t define souls materially, science must conclude they don’t exist, but every time you say, “I feel happy/fulfilled/satisfied” you belie the facts. Souls may not be material, and they may never be found in laboratories. They are nevertheless part of the human constitution, and I for one, would lay a flower under a tree and know that it is more than just fertilizer for the next growing commodity.