Thursday, January 12, 2012

Big and Little History - Revisted

I've been asked to be a guest on a local television program to discuss primate evolution and non-theism. The taping will be on Tuesday, 1/17.  Below are the notes which first appeared last May, when I spoke to the NYCA on a similar topic.

Because there are so many more people reading the site/blog now, I thought I'd re-post. I look forward to your comments.  Below is the edited presentation

"Thank you for offering me an opportunity to speak with you this evening.  It has been a long time since I’ve felt so at home. Being amongst fellow free-thinkers, atheists and humanists, brings out the best in me since as a person who deeply believes in science and truly lacks religious faith, I feel as though I am with people who accept my worldview and set of beliefs. These beliefs at their core are positive, a trust in science, the scientific method and our collective humanity, and a distrust of the god concept, religion and an afterlife, and those peddling such falsehoods.

The topic of tonight’s meeting is "BIG HISTORY". Or as Carl Sagan in his groundbreaking series "COSMOS" called it back in the 1970's, the cosmic calendar. This history spans billions of years and fills the void of space with the random and accidental growth and eventual extinction of whole galaxies, worlds and species. You may ask, isn’t history just history? Perhaps it is if we wish to limit ourselves to a singular scholarly pursuit or time period. But big history is special because it can best be defined as the study of everything, time and spaces’ interconnectedness with our universe and the living world which we all share and have both a biologic and social interest to perpetuate.

If there is a BH, there must be something to compare it to. So yes, there must be Little History. LH, for the sake of this evening’s talk (and which is actually my area of specialty) can be considered the last 8 million years of life on the planet. As time permits, we'll look more closely at our own species eventual place in big history’s tapestry of evolution
And just a note of self-deprecation, I freely admit that I am not the central authority on tonight’s topic of BIG HISTORY (Although I do warn you that I have a Ph.D. which gives me the authority to talk about any topic ad nausea).

But first a little about me and how I came to Atheism. I began to question the god concept as an eight year old boy, asking the BIG questions that BIG and LITTLE history best answers. These questions were, if there is a god, why does he allow for suffering?  Why do religions all have different gods? Why have so many people been killed in the name of god throughout history?  What about the retired gods of ancient times?  Religion never had a rational or satisfactory answer. As an adult and as an anthropologist I can answer these questions very simply with no need for a drawn out philosophical or ontological statement.  The simple truth is, and what B&L history shows us, is that man creates god in his image and not the other way.

As a librarian and library director, I seek to bring researchers information that is timely, unbiased, and truthful. This is done to continue a tradition going back several millennia, an even smaller part of little history. This way we can verify old truths or imagine and create new truths with information. Reliance on any one biblical text for truth is not only anti-intellectual, but is a disservice to our kind and mind, and will always lead to theocracy, dark ages, or some other religious despotism. If you don't believe me, ask Galileo, or in modern times those suffering under extremist religious governments across the globe today in Africa and the Middle-East.

As a professor of anthropology and researcher in the area of primatology and paleontology, I see that we are connected in ways that reliance on mythology and ownership of a personal deity can only tell a small part of our human history and through religion ever so poorly and myopically. I also realize that we cannot take B&L history for granted because there are those in our nation who have to fight school boards and local governments for their children's right to learn history and science. Communities in states such as Kansas, Pennsylvania and as recently in Florida have all tried to force religious theology into the public square. See, despotism isn't so exotic or that far away after all!

In these states and in others, evangelicals are waging war on big and little history, scientific education and scientific truth in our public schools and will sacrifice our children to the dogma of Intelligent Design. So that children will grow up knowing less, but will be obedient and easily manipulated. This is much like in Orwell's 1984, where the Newspeak dictionary removed, rather than added words. These religious folks understand that the less you know, the less you can imagine, the less you can imagine, the easier you can be controlled.  In this way, there is no big or little history, just the present.

Darwin knew big history  even though modern biology wasn’t yet invented to prove him correct. He also knew the danger of those who would refute science and evolution’s role in shaping our humanity. He notes,  “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. Hence we have religious people, creationists and evolution deniers who attack secularists, see evolution as simply “theory” and rely on the bible for the truth of our origins.  They never seem to question the irrationality of faith but are happy to stop people from accessing or seeking knowledge other than what is biblical. I think they know deep down that one crack in the wall of blind faith lead will lead to a deluge of reason, a flood of big and little history so enormous, that even Noah wouldn't stand a chance!

What we've seen in our very little time in history, maybe our last 1.6 million years, and certainly within our current species and my lifetime, is that what frequently separates us is the non-acceptance of the other based on which mythical figure we accept as our personal savior and all the justifications in art, theology, philosophy, literature and culture that follow.

Whether by birth or through the ritual of being saved in some way, this idea of a special relationship with god is human narcissism that at its root creates most of the social, economic, philosophical and psychological barriers to building a bridge to a more just, moral and happy world.  Take god out of the equation and we are then forced to be here for each other as equals.
Replace the god concept with science and we will have freed our species from bondage.  When we wake from the delusion, this stupor and understand that we have allowed ourselves to be slaves to god, that we are children to an unkind parent, that belief in god creates tyranny of the absolute, denial of fact and the objectification of the other.  We need to look no further than the placement of the foramen magnum of our ancient relatives and compare them to our modern primate lineage to see the truth (and dare I say somewhat subjectively) beauty of our evolution. That is the hallmark of both big and little history.

If I may digress a moment from tonight’s topic. I believe that atheists really do need to come out of the closet. We need the equivalent of a Stonewall, or ERA, or some trigger to excite and mobilize our forces. We have been stereotyped and in some cases marginalized for decades. But I have the sense that we are beginning to come into our own both socially and politically.  What we need to do right now is find both the creativity and intimacy to light a candle of wisdom and goodness and truth without the need for god.  As Eleanor Roosevelt wisely noted, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  If there is anyone in the audience or if you know someone who feels “shame, guilt or sin” for non-belief, tell them to shake off the old skin of illogic.  They are not alone in their non-belief and they should not feel sad or afraid.  They will be happier for your honesty, support of the truth and atheistic glad tidings.

So let’s begin our search for truth in science and see the truth in ourselves.  Let us focus on the topic at hand, the history of the universe and our place in it as humans. I think we need to get a bigger view of life.  A rational look at how we got here.  Not through a rib, but because as Carl Sagan notes, we are the stuff of stars. We are the cosmos and have billions of years of evolution to discuss this evening. Perhaps this is a daunting task, but certainly one that is worth the evening’s call for friendship and discussion."



  1. Hello David.

    Once it is taped, if you hear that the interview has been published on Youtube, please let us know.

  2. Hi Michel,

    Certainly! Thanks for the comment. As soon as I know the air date and then when its placed on Youtube, I will share that as well.


  3. Hi Michel,

    We taped yesterday. They're editing now, I have a rough cut on DVD. But they will put it up on Youtube shortly.