Saturday, March 22, 2008

Evolutionary Confusion

About a year ago, in a letter appearing in the local press, the correspondent argued that: a) liberals were forcing the teaching of evolution on honest, upstanding citizens, and b) if evolution were indeed fact – as opposed to theory – then humans should not deign to protect any animal species or classify them as “endangered.”

After all, evolution dictated survival of the fittest, did it not?

In fact, the miffed letter writer erred on both counts, and those errors disclose the price of ignorance that we pay in this country. Not only in terms of issues – from endangered species, to the reality of global warming, and the uselessness of “missile defense” - but also the extent to which the electoral process itself is warped by misinformation

First, liberals have never “forced evolution” on anyone. Rather, the teaching of evolution has been dictated by countless facts and evidence (including genetic, DNA links) which would merit its teaching for any enlightened population. In truth, the whole realm of biology is dependent on an evolutionary underpinning to thoroughly understand the origin of species, and the process of adaptation.

This is why various scientific organizations (e.g. The American Geophysical Union, American Association for the Advancement of Science, etc.) have from time to time inveighed against efforts – in assorted school districts – to either limit the teaching of evolution or place it in opposition to known religious doctrines (“creationism” and more recently, “intelligent design theory”)

They appreciate the price in ignorance that will be paid by our young people years later, and the learning deficit created. Placing them at a disadvantage to students of other nations (as numerous standardized test results already disclose). Unable to even recognize that a theory is the highest fact standard for science, in which the predictions of a hypothesis have been formally confirmed – over and over.

Second, ‘survival of the fittest’ was never uttered or stated by Charles Darwin himself, in any of his treatises. It was, rather, promoted by the English sociologist Herbert Spencer, in a misguided attempt to extrapolate Darwinian principles to the social sphere. (E.g. The Study of Sociology, 1873, serialized for an American audience in Popular Science Monthly)

In his serialized tracts, Spencer absolutely repudiated all state assistance to the poor, needy, physically feeble, or infirm – based on a bastardized “survival of the fittest” concept. He believed, erroneously, that people are like beasts that had to be forced to compete for precious resources. If they didn’t do this, they’d produce degenerate, weakened humans- unfit in the evolutionary scheme. Hence, the name “Social Darwinism”.

This Social Darwinism remains embedded in the current incarnation of rabid individualism disseminated by ideologues, who salivate non-stop at the prospect of using it to dismember social safety nets. Offering pitiful “faith-based” services in return.

In terms of eliminating species that encroach into human habitats, advocates confuse natural selection (a valid Darwinian principle) with human interference in ecologies. Decimating them to expand artificial human environments. Evolution has nothing to say about artificial expansions of an aggressively over-populating species. It does, however, assert the same limits of adaptation and resources will apply to that species as any other.

In this sense, humans – in their immense hubris and species-chauvinism- must realize they cannot detach themselves from the natural world and the laws that inevitably apply there.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

"Evil, Sin and the Devil" - Getting a Grip (Part II)

In Pastor Mike’s parlance, the mentally projected “Satan” is indeed “like a ravenous beast seeking innocents to devour”. Think of the T-Rex and its insatiable appetite for flesh. Think of components and aspects of the T-Rex brain in each of us. Lying in wait for the right trigger to set it off – as for Cho, the killer in the Virginia Tech massacre. Now, project that horror and its instincts to tear, rip and kill anything different or vulnerable outside yourself. Voila! We have the “Devil”. Only really a psychological embolism adorned in reptilian tendencies already within us. So alien and terrifying we have to project it outside to a nameless “devil”. It’s simply too appalling and horrific for any of us to take ownership for it.

Interestingly, some authors turn these concepts back on themselves and arrive at mind-boggling conclusions. The authors of the book ‘Mean Genes” for example, make the case that genetic imperatives often drive the most fundamental (epigenetic) morality. The hybrid brain in this sense is merely the facilitator of the genes’ imperatives. Perhaps there is a method behind the “madness” of the brain’s disjunctive function: To aid and abet a primal, epigenetic morality.

On the local level, the genetic imperative means I protect my family first in the event of disaster. The welfare of others is secondary. It is my family’s genes that must prevail. To the extent they do, epigenetic morality is satisfied. A certain pool of genes has increased its survival value.

In the larger societal sense and deformed to an extreme, the epigenetic imperative leads to horrors such as the Holocaust, where Jews were depicted as inimical genetic “aliens” to “true Germans” and the Fatherland. (In a trip to Germany in 1985, I still found a number of WWII era Germans who accepted this.) And hence could be dispensed with as serious threats, once their own humanity was removed. Likewise, the genetic imperative running amuck explains the Rwandan genocide, where Tutsis could be dispensed with as the “genetic aliens” to the REAL Rwandans, the Hutus. (In this case, Hutu talk radio played a key role in spreading the memes for the epigenetic morality)

Examining these genocides at the detached, objective level one cannot but help notice the analogies with ant (or bee) species that invade the habitats (e.g. hives) of others, kill them, make off with their queens and seize their resources.

A mindless epigenetic “god” at work.

In this sense, the epigenetic morality and imperative emerges as the real “god” articulated in the Bible, while the perfecto, “goody two shoes” posturer (invented later by the clever, angelic leaning neocortex) is the fake. This was the contention of author Lloyd Graham in the last chapter of his book, ‘Deceptions and Myths of the Bible’, 1979.

For example, as Graham observes (p. 315):

“Satan is matter and its energies and the (Temptation of Jesus in the desert) story is but a mythologist’s way of telling us…that in the inanimate world matter and energy dominate….The only consciousness here is the epigenetic and this is – as yet- wholly incapable of controlling violent forces. This explains why our imaginary God of love and mercy allows these forces to destroy us”.

Graham’s depiction of the material and epigenetic god is one embedded in carnal lusts, revenge and avarice, so how can humanity be any different?

As Graham earlier notes (p. 272):

“Man owes God nothing, not even thanks. Whatever is, exists because of necessity and not divine sufferance. And whatever exists suffers because of nondivine Causation. Our world is full of suffering, tragedy, disease, disaster, pain; we demand a better reason than religion has to offer.”

Perhaps for this reason, Graham insists that it is the de facto “creations” – humankind- who are the genuine authors of workable morality (“dynamic justness” not moral justice) not the claimed “Maker”.

Religious scholar Elaine Pagels makes much the same point in her book, ‘The Gnostic Gospels’ pointing out that the Gnostics regarded the biblical deity as a degenerate sub- being which they called “demiurgos”.

Of course, the Christian reading this will no doubt chime in: “What about free will? Can we not resist the epigenetic imperative?”

Maybe, but it’s by no means clear that any such entity as “free will” exists other than in limited domains. (E.g. I have the “free will” to choose a vegetarian diet over an all meat diet)

Even Einstein, writing in his marvelous book ‘Ideas and Opinions’ was suspicious that humans were genuinely free agents. As he noted:

“The man who is thoroughly convinced of universal causation …..has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity – internal and external- so that he cannot be responsible….any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motion it undergoes"

The beauty of atheism is that it dispenses with both demiurgos (the petulant, genetic “evil god”) and “Satan”, and atheists emerge as grown up enough to assume responsibility for their own actions, rather than whining that “the devil made me do it”. We know the real “devil” inheres in those untamed genetic imperatives, and we also know that to the extent we are self-aware – we can often defeat the more parochial and self-serving tendencies and sometimes aspire to greatness. Leap-frogging and circumventing our human limits.

Thereby we can avoid blaming every major human tragedy and back step on some imagined supernatural “dark force” permeating existence and just waiting to catch us unawares.

There is a dark “force” in the cosmos and we call it “dark energy”. But it is something that can be discerned by physics and has no supernatural attributes. Intelligent humans would do best to invest their time investigating the nature and mystery of dark energy, rather than squandering time on silly phantasmagorias and fabrications of the mind like “Satan” and “evil”.