Saturday, October 25, 2014

Our Ethics and Empathy from Nothing?

"OMG! I have the
same emotions as you"
Actually the title isn't quite correct and I hope it upset or intrigued you to click on the link and read the rest of this post.

Our human ability to feel anger or grief or thoughtfulness when seeing an unfairness perpetrated against others or personally against us isn't just a very human ability at all.  And these emotions that make us feel upset or wish to take action when an apparent injustice has been predicated on an individual or community is well documented in many mammal species and not just the higher primates.

The response that comes from seeing unfairness or actual injustice - be it social, political, economic or inter-personal - usually is a triggered when the individual is acted upon to feel deprived or when they empathically wish to see others made whole. Especially when an unfairness or injustice is brought to a friend, a family member or even to complete strangers. Clearly we are ready to fight back and stand in harms way to protect someone close to us, as equally as we are to seek civil and human rights justice for those prosecuted for blasphemy or murdered by religious terrorists in foreign lands.

As seen in Paul Bloom’s research work with babies, human empathy is observed as instinctual and thus genetically written into our genome via our DNA. Such evidence immediately disproves the need for religious doctrine or faith-based enculturation to instill either morality or ethics. Religious ethics based on scripture are an unneeded layer with sometime disastrous impacts and outcomes. These include personal guilt (born into sin), the alienation of others (the LGBTQ community), the subjugation and violence against women (too many examples) and the murder or kidnapping of adults and children (the latest incarnation of this is ISIS).

Optimistically however there is large and growing evidence to show we can be good without religious faith. Whole nations where populations are completely secular (Denmark, Sweden, Norway) are typically the healthiest in all categories of the social contract. And outside of these nations, non-religious empathy and caring is provided by many activists who are either secular or do not hold a religious or faith-based ideology and who actively work to help others in need at home and around the globe.

We may be blank slates in many ways when we are born but how families or communities grow children into adults through the transfer of culture and language subjugates each of us and adds layers to the original hard wiring in our brains which then creates our identity, preferences, beliefs and actions.

What is commonly referred to as the Golden Rule, the one that states that we should treat others in the exact fashion we wish to treated, is also a fairly well known and well-documented evolutionary adaptation. This urge for fairness and justice plays out within us as part of the original software we are shipped with when we’re booted-up after leaving the placenta. And the sole purpose for this hard wired empathy is for the successful reproduction and continuation of our species.

It’s clear then that aside from our personal biases there is nothing really that special about human empathy or the wish to be treated fairly. There are numerous primate studies and field observations that conclusively show our cousins the great apes, specifically chimpanzees and gorillas but also other primates, can and do advocate for themselves or care for others within their band. At times they even become caretakers to orphaned members of their group or even adopt and care for an orphan from another species. And sometimes they do this at their own potential expense.

And still nature reveals even more about empathy and altruism in other non-primate species. Here and here.

In all of these examples the empathy behavior doesn't really make the individual animal a hero the way we humans define such action or actor. It just makes them part of nature just as we are part of nature. In fact, aside from the complex constructs of human culture, there may be very little difference between our primate relatives or other animals when they instinctually help themselves or others and the human first responders and bystanders who help those in need or danger.

And we don’t even need to use the great apes to show how unfairness is recognized in other primate species. Here’s a great (and very funny) clip from a TED talk with primatologist Frans deWaal about how researchers deliberately gave some monkeys better treats for correctly doing the same task and how the monkeys who received the poorer treat reacted to the “injustice”:

So what does this mean in the end for our own survival? Well, from a humanist perspective it shows that we can be good without the presupposition of god belief or organized religion. It also shows the bias of those with faith who demand or expect us to accept their broken view of humans is actually itself a broken and impure philosophy or set of assumptions no matter the complexity of their argument.

For those who truly believe that humans are unable to be good or empathic without the acceptance of faith, do such assumptions make you a better and kinder individual or one that based on such faith pretext immediately exclude you to enjoin with a common humanity based on the acceptance of others?

This is why non-belief and the philosophy of humanism is the best way forward. Judging others not by which sect they belong or which deity they pray or religious doctrine they follow is clearly a more honest and more connected way to be in this world. If you are religious you may disagree but with the growing number of church closings as the rise of worldwide secularism continues, such proof in numbers suggests a rejection of faith traditions in favor of science, modernity and reason.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Two New Dinosaur Studies: Each is For the Birds

The online journal recently published links to two new fascinating studies concerning dinosaur evolution and the evolution of birds. The studies provide fundamental insights into the rise of birds and how adaptations of both feathers and bird flight staved off the extinction for at least some dinosaur species in the late Cretaceous, between 150 million to about 65 million years ago.

The first article, Dinosaur family tree gives fresh insight into rapid rise of birds, provides a overall review of how the diversity of dinosaur species allowed for rapid morphological adaptations and also discusses the relatively quick evolution of flight. They authors focus on related changes in bone shape and structure and other traits seen in modern birds which first appeared in their dinosaur forbearers.

The study mentions that the familiar anatomical features of birds – such as feathers, wings, hollowed long bones and wishbones – “all first evolving piecemeal” in their dinosaur ancestors over tens of millions of years. The article postulates that once a fully functioning bird body shape evolved, “an evolutionary explosion began”, causing a rapid increase in the rate at which birds adapted around the globe.

This, according to the authors, led eventually to the multitude of avian species that we know today. The authors of the article also note:

“Based on (their) findings from fossil records, researchers say the emergence of birds some 150 million years ago was a gradual process, as some dinosaurs became more bird-like over time. This makes it very difficult to draw a dividing line on the family tree between dinosaurs and birds.” 

 The second of the two articles, How dinosaur arms turned into bird wings, describes in excellent detail how adaptations of wrist bones would allow select ancient species of dinosaur to adapt to flight. The morphological changes appear in dinosaurs, had become recessive and then at some point reappear in birds, leading to flight. Here is the explanation given by the scientists who authored the article:

“…new data obtained by the Vargas lab has revealed the first developmental evidence that the bird semilunate was formed by the fusion of the two dinosaur bones. They go on to show that another bone -- the pisiform -- was lost in bird-like dinosaurs, but then re-acquired in the early evolution of birds, probably as an adaptation for flight, where it allows transmission of force on the downstroke while restricting flexibility on the upstroke. Combined, the fossil and developmental data provide a compelling scenario for a rare case of evolutionary reversal.”

I have always had a great respect for our feathered friends. Even watching common pigeons will stop me in my tracks as I begin watch their behavior and think about their ancient lineage. I do tend to daydream back 65 million years before mammals would radiate and speciate around the globe and onto every continent.

Bird diversity and their strong adaptability, like that of dinosaurs, is truly symbiotic and matched by their geography and living conditions. Even flightless birds like penguins and ostriches are incredibly successful from an evolutionary perspective. We also have to remember that it was Charles Darwin’s finches that helped him focus his grand theory of Natural Selection. As such Darwin’s ideas remain central to biology and a host of other disciplines.

In each case these two articles should be respected for offering evidenced-based details which creationists will have a harder and more difficult time refuting. Evolution, whether it is dinosaur-bird; or fish; or plant; or viruses and bacterial; or mammalian and primate, is real and true.

As the evidence continues to expand and mount on all fronts, be it fossil or genetic in nature, after almost 160 years sine the publication of the Origin of Species, science has more than enough data to prove Darwin’s theory…no…make that Law of Evolution is correct.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The New Religious Math: Theology + Modernity = Open Hostility

"To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn) There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn) And a time to every purpose, under Heaven"

Earlier this week there was a news article about a possible break between the Republican Party (the GOP) and one of its philosophical leaders and former presidential candidates. Mike Huckabee, the Evangelical Minister who was previously also the Governor of Arkansas. Huckabee held a press conference and declared that if the GOP should change its platform on either gay marriage or a woman's right to choose (they're against both) that he'd leave the party for good and find more ideologically concurrent groups to partner with in the future.

Threats like this remind me of a child who plans to hold their breath until they turn blue in the face to get what they want. But this threat really isn't child's play. It is another very strong sign that American politics is infused with religious doctrine and ideology which brings with it many billions in campaign contributions.

While saber rattling isn't new in politics or religion for that matter, the three-week Synod held by the Roman Catholic Church under the auspices of the new Pontiff, is also unsettling the more conservative Catholic faithful. The push by both Huckabee to batten down the hatches and the Church to attempt a course change of its spiritual and theological ship each comes at a time when both secularism and democratic humanism are on the rise.

In one sense there is a strong repudiation of secular ideas by evangelicals in all faith traditions. On the other hand, and at least in terms of the RC Church, there is a public relations attempt to adapt the secular ideas which parishioners hold and to fit them into doctrine.  The Synod meeting's apparent goal is to ultimately change the absolutist segments of the doctrine and those who espouse it in the hierarchy so that the Church will again become more relevant to believers. These issues are painful for insiders to discuss and from the outside are made to look like there is actually liberalization and change coming.

In essence the Synod is really just a marketing ploy than a real change.  Unless and until the Church recognizes gay marriage and abortion rights, something it cannot do theologically, it will just try to dial down the negative rhetoric while not really changing the institutional mandates set theologically by the faith and its leaders. Case in point it has been decades since Vatican II and there are still active and influential priests who continue to accept that the Jews conspired to kill Christ. These leaders work subtly and in ways not apparent to many in their effort to settle old doctrinal scores.

One of the major problems facing organized religion is the decline of believers who choose to dispense with attending regular communal worship services. Even those at the pulpit acknowledge that for the faithful, houses of worship have become less popular, ineffective and not important for spiritual communion with one's deity of choice.

Of course there are many reasons for the steep decline of worship attendance. Demographic changes; technology advances; numerous financial scandals; rampant child emotional and sexual abuse, purposeful cover-ups and the relocation of abusers. These are just some of the issues which make people think twice about the leadership and authority of those in charge of numerous religious organizations.

When you add to the mix the rise of secular humanism and freethought along with the impact of daily science discoveries concerning our place in nature as well as the wider universe we find that both modernity and each new discovery leaves fewer and fewer places where magical thinking and religious belief can thrive.

And it's not just that science and humanism offers a more honest, more coherent and truer answers than any faith alternative, it is also the rate at which global non-belief and secularism have risen which both threatens and diminishes the need for the acceptance of god, faith community or religious spirituality.

So to somewhat quote Ecclesiastes, for every thing there is a season and place under THE SKY not heaven. I conclude that such movement away from faith and closer to secular humanism and non-belief is the next great global political and social trend which will inform and transform our individual and collective lives.

In the next fifty years the number of non-believers will continue to grow substantially around the globe. And perhaps then, with the ongoing expansion taking place, the sun will finally begin to set on the season of religious faith. A season which has haunted, burdened, bifurcated  and damaged our humanity for generations.

And yes, from my own and what I gather from the Humanist perspective this is a nice bit of poetry.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.