Thursday, 31 March 2016

Charles Darwin - puzzlemaster

On the Origin of Species - DarwinCharles Darwin would have been great at jigsaws. I have just finished reading On The Origin of Species (a reprint of the first edition), and the picture it has left in my mind is of a jigsaw puzzle not quite finished. Wikipedia tells me that jigsaw puzzles had been available for nearly 100 years before the book was published. I wonder if the analogy had occurred to Darwin too?

When starting a jigsaw puzzle, the most prized pieces, as we all know, are the corner pieces, closely followed by the other edge pieces. Of the edge pieces, the most valued are the ones which contain transitions in structure (where horizon meets the sky, or the edge of a building appears with the mountains in the background). These transitional features add value when found on the ‘middle pieces’ too, but generally, while sorting through the pile, these are put to one side while the edges are arranged to lay out the boundaries and give a sense proportion to the whole enterprise - although small groups of pieces related by sharing a certain striking feature may be built into small isolated pictures to be positioned tentatively within the framework when their correct positions are more clear. 

Each of these elements are apt analogies for many of the subjects touched upon as Darwin unfolds his theory of evolution.

The corner pieces of Darwin's puzzle are: that for any kind of ‘organic being’ in nature -
  1. Its characteristics are heritable;
  2. In each generation there is variation between individuals;
  3. All but a small minority of individuals in most generations usually die (by the agency of drought, famine,  predators, parasites, disease, etc.) without leaving progeny.
  4. One or more of an individual’s variations may prove favourable to its probability of surviving and, more importantly (at least to the puzzle), of reproducing - thereby tending to preserve those favourable variations in subsequent generations.
  5. There has been enough time for this process to have produced, from “life ...having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one”, all the varied forms of life which have ever existed on Earth.
The first four of these corner pieces are self evident facts, and the ideas inferred by them can be summed up with the closing words of the Sixth chapter (“Laws of Variation”):
Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring from their parents—and a cause for each must exist—it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure, by which the innumerable beings on the face of this earth are enabled to struggle with each other, and the best adapted to survive. (p 170)
Darwin includes a reasonable amount of discussion about what might be the cause of variation, and his close approximation to the modern understanding in his conclusions on this point is testament to his powers of observation and reasoning, particularly as Gregor Mendel's contemporaneous work in inheritance was apparently unknown to him.

On the fifth point, Darwin, who would have been aware of scientific estimates of the age of the Earth ranging from about 100 million years up to several billion years, had this to say:
The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations. 
Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory. (p482)
Darwin’s jigsaw puzzle didn’t come in a box with a picture on the front to tell him what to expect to see when he was finished; and unlike a puzzle which comes in a box, he would not have expected to obtain a complete set of pieces which would fit nicely inside a neat rectangle, with the final piece filling the final gap. The task he set for himself was far more difficult. He collected some of the pieces of his puzzle on his 1837 voyage as naturalist on board the HMAS ‘Beagle’, and over the next twenty-two years many more pieces were procured from the works - both historical and of his contemporaries - of breeders of livestock, pigeon fanciers, physiologists, geologists, etc. as well as from fellow naturalists specialising in a variety of fields. 

These various disciplines could be thought of as providing the edges of the puzzle - they are areas of knowledge which stand independently of the theory of evolution and yet provide a supporting framework by which the various arguments Darwin uses to support his theory are verified, and by which they are located within the ‘bigger picture’ of scientific understanding. Breeders of livestock are cited, along with findings from his own experiments in breeding pigeons and various plants, to demonstrate that the core principle of modification by variation and inheritance is plausible. Physiologist’s opinions are used to confirm that superficial affinities which seem to suggest relatedness between species are in fact more than superficial.

Our analogy, now already stretched, needs a little more stretching because in order for the puzzle of the origin of species to be comprehensible, it must accommodate time and distance in addition to the normal two dimensions with which we are familiar. This is so that we can incorporate migration of populations from their places of origin into other territories (and, often, back again at a later time). To this end, naturalists expert in flora and fauna of different parts of the world are cited to confirm that the distribution of related forms indicates a general correlation between distance of geographical separation and degree of ‘divergence of character’; and Geologists are consulted who verify that the fossil record shows that divergence of character is also broadly related to degree of separation in time as indicated by separation in the geological strata.

This extra dimension can be imagined as a puzzle laid out upon a puzzle repeated many times until it forms a column which represents time. The pieces contained in any one level represent all the organic beings alive at a given moment - interlocked with their neighbours by their mutual struggle for survival. Each level is related to those adjacent by each individual’s relationships to its parents below and its offspring above (make the layers thin enough to show each of the living things and their individual variations and family ties; or as thick as your imagination requires to let them represent whole populations giving rise to slightly different forms across the course of time). At the bottom of this column the earliest form (or forms) of life give rise to a trail of offspring which ascends as a tenuous thread through the lower layers branching occasionally to produce, with gradually increasing variety, the parent forms for all the kinds of living things which appear as we look higher in the column. Once we get three quarters of the way up (about a 600 Million years ago) the puzzle looks nearly as complex as it was at the time of Darwin's writing (some of that complexity has been erased since then). That is, there were about as many different kinds of living things, all of which could be organised into related groups - by order, family, genus, species, subspecies, or variety - but we will trace these forms upwards through time until most of them dwindle and die out as the modified forms of their own offspring replace the now obsolete form of their parents. So as we view each layer of this upper section in turn, we see strange but half-recognisable forms arise which are gradually replaced by newer ones in a repeating pattern as the picture becomes incrementally more familiar until we reach the top layer and recognise life as we now see it in David Attenborough documentaries.

Even this picture is not quite complete (“but wait there’s more!”). We need to also imagine a separate and slightly different column-puzzle being produced within the boundaries of each geologically separate area of the Earth’s surface. Not only that, we need to imagine that each of our columns might receive immigrants from other columns from time to time; or even that some of these columns will merge as the physical barriers separating them are bridged by geological changes which allow free migration of species between them; or that columns might be divided as geological barriers appear and they again need to be imagined as separate and becoming slightly different. And occasionally, here and there, conditions arise where beds of fossils are being laid down providing something like an album of snapshots - tantalising clues for geologists - but when the most interesting things are going on, nature nearly always puts the camera down, and only picks it up again when the excitement is over (as Darwin explains: fossil beds are more often created during periods of subsidence where land masses and related populations are shrinking).

One of the key sources of information which Darwin had at his disposal - and which could perhaps be said to be somewhat analogous to the ‘picture on the box’ or, at least, to collections of ‘middle bits sharing certain striking features’ having been built into small isolated pictures - was the work of the many naturalists who had gone before him who saw their work as categorising and cataloguing the works of ‘The Creator’. In fact there is a whole chapter dedicated to “Classification” where he points out its inherent difficulties - citing cases where quite similar forms have been declared separate species (and therefore deemed to have been separately created) while other, possibly more divergent forms were classified as mere varieties of a single species because intermediate forms were known to exist (either currently alive or evident in fossil records) which connected them by fine graduations, thus suggesting a common ancestry.
Naturalists try to arrange the species, genera, and families in each class, on what is called the Natural System. But what is meant by this system? Some authors look at it merely as a scheme for arranging together those living objects which are most alike, and for separating those which are most unlike; or as an artificial means for enunciating, as briefly as possible, general propositions,—that is, by one sentence to give the characters common, for instance, to all mammals, by another those common to all carnivora, by another those common to the dog-genus, and then by adding a single sentence, a full description is given of each kind of dog. The ingenuity and utility of this system are indisputable. But many naturalists think that something more is meant by the Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator; but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge. (p415)
...with respect to the comparative value of the various groups of species, such as orders, sub-orders, families, sub-families, and genera, they seem to be, at least at present, almost arbitrary. Several of the best botanists, such as Mr. Bentham and others, have strongly insisted on their arbitrary value. Instances could be given amongst plants and insects, of a group of forms, first ranked by practised naturalists as only a genus, and then raised to the rank of a sub-family or family; and this has been done, not because further research has detected important structural differences, at first overlooked, but because numerous allied species, with slightly different grades of difference, have been subsequently discovered. 
All the foregoing rules and aids and difficulties in classification are explained, if I do not greatly deceive myself, on the view that the natural system is founded on descent with modification; that the characters which naturalists consider as showing true affinity between any two or more species, are those which have been inherited from a common parent, and, in so far, all true classification is genealogical; that community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking, and not some unknown plan of creation, or the enunciation of general propositions, and the mere putting together and separating objects more or less alike. (p419)
...Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes. The hopelessness of the attempt has been expressly admitted by Owen in his most interesting work on the ‘Nature of Limbs.’ On the ordinary view of the independent creation of each being, we can only say that so it is;—that it has so pleased the Creator to construct each animal and plant. (p 435)
Surprisingly, this extraordinarily complex and impressively complete multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle which Darwin has constructed has needed little amendment in the intervening century and a half. Many of the other pieces of the puzzle - ‘the middle bits’ - as assembled by Darwin have remained largely in place. When new discoveries (the DNA spiral helix, understanding tectonic plate movement, calculating the age of the earth, etc.) or scientific techniques (genome mapping, or the various overlapping radio-isotope dating techniques) have had anything to add, it has usually been a matter of filling in the details or adjusting the scale - finding some missing pieces, as it were, or shifting a piece here and there which had been placed provisionally in the first place. The net effect of these amendments has, as happens with a jigsaw puzzle, made the picture easier to see; rather than casting doubt on Darwin’s conclusions it has tended to confirm them. Now when someone, who may think they have found a fatal flaw in the theory, tries to place their piece where it doesn’t belong, it is as obvious - to those familiar with the bigger picture - as someone trying to put a piece of sky into a hillside for no other reason than that it looks about the right shape.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Darwin’s exegesis of the catalogue of facts at his disposal is that, though his theory has great explanatory power (and no better explanation has yet been suggested), he was aware that falsifiability is a key element of any scientific investigation. Or put another way, intellectual integrity demands that any worthwhile argument must be able to address the objections which may be raised by those not yet convinced by it (and, if possible, any they might yet think of). Remarkably, nearly all of the objections raised in recent times by ‘philosophers and fools’ (as Richard Feynman called them) - where they are not actually objecting against a feature of their own misrepresentation of the theory - were pre-empted by Darwin. It is evident from his writing that he was motivated, above all, by discovering what is true; and the only way to be sure you have not deceived yourself is to honestly evaluate any opposing arguments to ensure that they do not disprove your conclusions or provide a better explanation.

Here are some familiar objections which he considers:

- Irreducible complexity:
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. (p189)
(Nor has any such case - so far - been convincingly demonstrated in the intervening years.)

- Animals have characteristics which seem designed to benefit humans or other species:
Natural selection cannot possibly produce any modification in any one Species exclusively for the good of another species; though throughout nature one species incessantly takes advantage of, and profits by, the structure of another.
...If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection. (p200)
- Missing links:
So with natural species, if we look to forms very distinct, for instance to the horse and tapir, we have no reason to suppose that links ever existed directly intermediate between them, but between each and an unknown common parent. The common parent will have had in its whole organisation much general resemblance to the tapir and to the horse; but in some points of structure may have differed considerably from both, even perhaps more than they differ from each other. Hence in all such cases, we should be unable to recognise the parent-form of any two or more species, even if we closely compared the structure of the parent with that of its modified descendants, unless at the same time we had a nearly perfect chain of the intermediate links. (p271)
Cuvier ranked the Ruminants and Pachyderms, as the two most distinct orders of mammals; but Owen has discovered so many fossil links, that he has had to alter the whole classification of these two orders; and has placed certain pachyderms in the same sub-order with ruminants: for example, he dissolves by fine gradations the apparently wide difference between the pig and the camel. (p329)
There are many such points of contention which he addresses (and which are yet, in modern times, raised as objections by those whose ideology demands the acceptance of a narrative at odds with the facts), and many fascinating points of scientific trivia among them (did you know that barnacles are more closely related to lobsters than they are to oysters? Or that not all cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird's nests?). Each point having some bearing on the arguments he is presenting, and contributing incrementally to a beautifully complex picture which indicates the kind of history which must have been traversed by life on earth.

On The Origin Of Species is still a very readable book - the English language has not changed much since the time of its writing, though there are some anachronisms which would be deemed not-politically-correct by modern standards - it contains some big words (have Google at the ready) and some long sentences to stretch the attention span. But it remains worth reading because, above all, and apart from being possibly the most important scientific publication ever written, it shows a great mind at work - carefully checking innumerable details and piecing them together to build an edifice of knowledge which is as unassailable as it is beautiful.

There is no better way to end - after saying “if you haven't already; just read it!” - than to quote the words (spoiler alert) with which Darwin himself chose to conclude:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015



I walked along a laneway as the sun was getting low.

Blackened feet – coastal earth; mem'ries wakened; sea breezes blow.

No more children's footprints, neither earnest shouts that sound;

trees, unclimbed, trail melancholy tendrils on the ground.

Though life was hard in these back yards (ends would barely meet)

my ear still hears that “thump” – a football bouncing in the street.

Through gaps in fences barely standing, I'm catching glimpses.

Glimpses of hand-made dreams; sparse flakes of paint not fallen.

Flakes that call “Remember? Remember how the door jammed?”

How we never burned it down!” – “Things we got away with…”

A 'teen's retreat' – skip school! The walls recall: “shoot the breeze”;

“pass the joint”; “Baby please! Please baby, don't you be a tease.”

Gravel crunching underfoot. Recalled: the names; the faces.

Time has passed. Some moved on – enjoying other places.

Others, gone: snuffed out by banalities of nature.

Yet still, my heart is light; my feet – as happy dancing;

but, peering through the branches, it seemed to me as though

I walked along a laneway as the sun was getting low.

(Words Feb 2013. Picture today)

Friday, 16 October 2015

My Elephant is Leaning Both Ways

My Elephant is leaning both ways. At least I think it is, having just read "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012, the book is a fascinating look at the way people make up their minds about ethics and social values. It is made all the more fascinating by the fact that it is backed up by a large body of data, which has been collected via a series of field studies, on-line questionnaires, and interviews designed to measure the moral inclinations of people of different ages, different cultures, and a range of different political and religious leanings. This data allows some insightful inferences to be drawn about the evolutionary, instinctive (or, if you prefer, God-given) foundations of human morality. Its subtitle "Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics" gives a good idea of what to expect, but suggests a somewhat narrower scope of subject matter than the book actually covers.

There are three main conclusions drawn, each of which is presented as a central idea in the three sections of the book. The first of these: "intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second" is the basis of the metaphorical Elephant and its imaginary rider - the elephant represents our intuition or gut-responses while the rider represents the intellect, whose job is, primarily, to serve the elephant (and help it avoid obstacles). The metaphor is carried over from a previous book "The Happiness Hypothesis", where as he says:
I described how the rider and elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection. In this book I’ll use the metaphor to solve puzzles such as why it seems like everyone (else) is a hypocrite and why political partisans are so willing to believe outrageous lies and conspiracy theories. I’ll also use the metaphor to show you how you can better persuade people who seem unresponsive to reason
The second conclusion (and section): "There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness" discusses the relatively recent tendency toward reducing moral decisions to whether or not there is any harm being done (consenting adults, in private, etc.) which is the yardstick of ethics for those who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD) and is based on the principle which John Stuart Mill had put forth in 1859: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” These principles are central to the laws of most secular democratic societies but it is worth bearing in mind that:
WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class [...] is the most unusual of all.
The corollary then is that there are many people who are not WEIRD and who see things a little differently. Haidt's research has led him to the conclusion that there are (at least) six innate and universal moral foundations which he lists as:
  1. Care/Harm
  2. Liberty/Oppression
  3. Fairness/Cheating
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal
  5. Authority/Subversion
  6. Sanctity/Degradation
Now you might be inclined to think, if you are as WEIRD as I, that foundations two to six could be rationally subsumed into point one, and I assume we could all pat ourselves on the back for thinking the same way as John Stuart Mill; but the point of Haidt's research is, in short: yes, but you can't so easily convince your elephant. Even among the WEIRD respondents he found that the speed with which people resolved carefully crafted moral dilemmas (presented to them in computer generated questionnaires) demonstrated that the strategic reasoning required to provide a 'care/harm' based explanation for a moral judgement took significantly longer if there was a conflict in one or more of the other areas.

The final section of the book is based on the third conclusion: "Morality Binds and Blinds". In this section we are shown how the data he has collected demonstrates that the relative importance of the six foundations are highly correlated with people's religious and political affiliations. For example the liberal mindset is focussed primarily on the first and, to a lesser extent, the second and third; whereas the social conservative is likely to value all six in roughly equal proportions. These differences make for difficult conversations across groups because the respective elephants are seeing each other as morally reprehensible. And disturbingly, studies conducted on identical twins show that these tendencies appear to be inborn and heritable:
And what’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.
We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your degree of religiosity, and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.
This of course leaves about a half to two thirds of that variability to be influenced by persuasion and other 'environmental factors', so let's not get too disheartened!

An unnecessarily large part, as I see it, of the final chapter was taken up with an attempt to justify the long discredited notion of 'group selection' as a mechanism for shaping evolutionary change in order to justify the existence of 'groupishness' in human beings. (Richard Dawkins's brilliant book from 1976 "The Selfish Gene" explains, in layman's terms, why, as an explanation, the idea of group selection both fails and is unnecessary in understanding the origins of group behaviour.) Nevertheless, If the reader is happy to skim over these parts and accept that groupishness is both a thing and explicable, there are some excellent suggestions about how those with a will can train themselves to communicate across the divide of the many ideological groupishnesses and get their elephants to lean together for the benefit of all.

"The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt - read it. (It'll make you think.)

Saturday, 1 August 2015

What In Gods Name?

According to recent estimates (and, of course, Wikipedia), almost 54% of the worlds population consider themselves to be adherents of an Abrahamic religion; this can be broken down into Christians 33%, Muslims 20%, Jews 0.23%, and another 0.2% or so is made up of the combined memberships of the Bahá'í, Rastafarian, Samaritanism, Druze, Mandaeism, and Bábism faiths. Atheist and ‘non-religious’ taken together, at 14%, make up the third largest category in the list (or second largest if the Abrahamic religions are taken together) followed closely by (the only other group to come in above 10%) Hinduism at 13%.
Wait, what? Jews – less than a quarter of one percent? That’s right, besides Israel (at 74%) the only countries in the world where more than one percent of the population is Jewish are the USA and Canada (oh, and lets not forget Gibraltar which, being home to about 600 Jews, holds the Jewishness world record at 2% of its 30,000 or so inhabitants). Inaccuracies inherent in internet sourced demographics not withstanding, a good statistician would be able to present a convincing argument that, with a 95% confidence interval and based on a statistically significant sample size, Jews don’t really exist. Why then should we care what any of them might have to say or what opinions any of them might hold?
Well because, for one thing, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said: No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.”
And because, more specifically, there is a perception drawn from history that the Jewish people are the canary in the mine of the world’s political fashionswhen the Jews are getting a hard time there is, quite likely, an ideological poison in the air which no one has noticed yet, but will soon be affecting us all.
And because Jonathan Sacks.
He was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 – he is apparently thought highly of by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, which gives one pause – but nevertheless, he gives the impression of being extremely well read and well informed, fair minded, and certainly able to put his ideas into words with clarity.
And because ...well, why not find out by reading his recent book, “Not In God’s Name”? (I have just read it, having been fortunate enough to be able to borrow a copy from my local library.) Why? Because it is an unflinching and extraordinarily well thought-out look at the origins of religiously motivated violence. Along the way to presenting some thought-provoking suggestions as to how such violence might be made less popular in the future, he leads the reader through a scientifically orthodox description of the evolutionary beginnings of altruism and its role in human social groups; explains the necessity of religion (of some kind) as a first step in allowing groups to establish trust relationships with strangers – thereby allowing communities to enlarge into tribes and nationsthrough to a discussion of the causes and consequences of that religion turning bad, and what can be done about it.
I say unflinching because questions of religiously motivated violence are not side-stepped – too often in these kinds of conversations we hear arguments based on fatuous comparisons: “so you think religion is a cause of violence? Well what about Atheism?” or even the ‘no true Scotsman’ argument: “people who commit violent acts in the name of my religion aren’t true members of my religion.” These arguments are acknowledged and correctly considered to be beside the point by Sacks who, having begun with the long view of human history, examines the factors which cause peaceful religious communities to give rise to violent subgroups, and explains why such groups are ultimately doomed to self-destruct.
The central image that he uses – and which he considers a central theme in the book of Genesis – is the notion of sibling rivalry as seen in the stories of Cain and Abel – the sons of Adam; Ishmael and Isaac – sons of Abraham; Jacob (a.k.a Israel) and Esau – sons of Isaac; and Joseph (coat of many colours) and his brothers – the sons of Jacob. These narratives are extremely important to the sense of identity of Muslims and Jews (and by extension, Christians) who consider themselves to be, either physically or spiritually, the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac respectively, and though there is disagreement about the details of the story at this point, both groups are agreed in considering themselves to be descendants of Abraham. Sacks’s explanation of these stories – which, on first reading, seem to be about division and enmity – shows a deeper meaning in which they are all seen, ultimately, to be about reconciliation; and that when one brother is chosen the other is not rejected; and that each sibling should be content with his own ‘blessing’ without hating his brother. This is an idea which could save many lives and avoid much pointless human suffering if it gained traction among those whose ideologies are stuck in the enmity interpretation.
These are Bible stories which, once explained by the scholar, can be seen to be moral and good without the need for spin and hand-waving, but he also argues convincingly to encourage those of a religious inclination to value the traditional over the literal interpretations of what he calls the ‘hard texts’ of their holy books. These arguments are similar to arguments that we hear from Christians (the Old Testament is superseded by the New) or Muslims (Jihad is about the inner struggle) explaining that the texts remain useful if taken allegorically.
So “Not In God’s Name”? It is thought provoking, it might change some minds for the better, it might even save some lives. It is a good book.
But I have some quibbles.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Abrahamic monotheism entered the world as a rejection of imperialism and the use of force to make some men masters and others slaves.(p4)” 
I’m not convinced.
If this is the case then it would appear to have been a failed project. In fact, the beginnings of these outcomes were first seen in western civilisation during the the periods when, as Sacks points out, religion was being set aside, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, by the secularisation of knowledge, power, culture, and morality respectively (p12-13). The fruits of this secularisation, he tells us are “...unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilisation and are to be defended and cherished.” Now, I understand that Rabbi Sacks is a religious man, and so one shouldn’t be surprised to find him trying to re-inject religion where he sees a weakness (everything looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer, and all that) – but in the follow-on from the above there is, as it seems to me, a cheap shot:
He tells us that secularism and its achievements do not provide ‘meaning’ “do not and cannot answer the three questions …: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”
I think he is mistaken.
If we were to change his “do not and cannot answer” so that it reads “have yet to compellingly answer” then perhaps I might concede this point for the sake of argument, but even so, what are we to make of the 14% or so of the worlds population who apparently feel that they have arrived at sufficiently compelling answers without recourse to religion? He seems to be asserting that, to find meaning, it is necessary to turn away from the rational quest for what is true, and embrace a traditional belief system without regard for whether or not it is true or rational.
The argument for the sake of which I might have conceded is that the resurgence of religious extremism can, at least in part, be blamed on a perceived lack of meaning in ‘modern society’. It is a point well made: religious ideas among people with no sense of purpose are likely to spread like a virus among the unvaccinated. The question it raises though, is how can society as a whole address the question of the human need for purpose, meaning, identity, belonging – how can secular society (producer of “the greatest achievements of human civilisation”) be improved – how can we as a species progress from where we are, so that our common purpose and a shared sense of meaning is strengthened regardless of religious persuasion (or failure to be persuaded). Unfortunately Sacks seems to see secularism as a spent force – a form on its way to extinction – and, a little too eagerly for me, seems to be preparing for another resurgence of religious enthusiasm.
I hope he is mistaken.
He asks: “As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?” That these questions can be asked at all should be deeply troubling to any rational person, but there is some solace in knowing that a leading authority of the oldest of these traditions can answer them with an unequivocal “No”.
The question which illustrates the essence of my quibble, however, illustrates it by not being asked. It is the most uncomfortable question that can be asked by a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim: “Does the God of Abraham exist?”
I’ll say it again. I think this is a good book. It is a book worth reading for anyone who wants to gain an insight into the religious view of religious violence. It also makes some bold exhortations to the religious which, if taken seriously, have a good chance of encouraging people on the threshold of radicalisation to take a step or two away.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Are You my Brother?

Two stories in the news this morning got me thinking (and sometimes when I’m thinking I have to write things down so that I don’t forget to ‘carry the one’ as it were).
Firstly a story from Norway of human solidarity inspired by religion, which I think, is something to get excited about: – “More than 1,000 people formed a ‘ring of peace’ Saturday outside Oslo’s main synagogue at the initiative of a group of young Muslims. The event in the Norwegian capital follows a series of attacks against Jews in Europe, including murderous terror attacks in Paris in January and in neighboring Denmark last week.
One of the eight independent organizers of Saturday’s event in Oslo, 17-year-old Hajrah Arshad, said the gathering shows “that Islam is about love and unity. ‘We want to demonstrate that Jews and Muslims do not hate each other,’ co-organizer Zeeshan Abdullah told the crowd, standing in a half-circle before the white synagogue. ‘We do not want individuals to define what Islam is for the rest of us.’ ...Ervin Kohn, head of Oslo’s Jewish community, called the gathering in sub-zero temperatures ‘unique.’”
I'm really hoping that label ‘unique’ quickly becomes inappropriate - I want to see more of it. It has the feel of the student sit-ins and anti-war protests of the Vietnam war era which – along with the popular music, books, and movies of the time – has produced several generations whose appreciation for cross cultural solidarity (among other things) has displaced and marginalised the theocratic war-mongering, racism, and (paradoxically) moralising of the ‘old guard’ throughout the Western World.
We are told that targeting ‘disaffected youth’ with jihadist propaganda is the primary recruitment strategy of the terrorist organisations against whom this ‘ring of peace’ stands (and who, by the way, are ‘Young Earth Creationists’ who believe that ‘God’s Plan’ includes an imminent apocalyptic conclusion to ‘His Creation’, and – on the off-chance that the apocalypse is not quite so imminent – world-conquest and slavery for all!)
So if there is to be a group – a movement if you will (and there is good reason to hope that the children of many of these warring factions are mobilising for peace; a quick google for “youth palestine israel peace” returns an encouraging list of titles) – of young people who are proud of their Islamic culture and want to effect a change so that the rest of the world will associate it with human solidarity then I am inclined, provisionally at least, to wish it a fair wind.
The second story is related to the one above:
At the funeral of Omar El-Hussein, the 22 year old responsible for the shootings in Copenhagen “which targeted a meeting on free speech and Islam, and the capital’s main synagogue,” a man who asked not to be named, speaking of those who had come to pay their respects and support the family of the dead man said: “There were a lot of young people that you don’t normally see there… because they knew Omar. Some of them were gang members. They are my brothers too because they believe in Allah and the Prophet Mohammed, but their lifestyle doesn’t have a lot to do with Islam,”
So again even at the funeral of a terrorist there is a cautious distancing between 'whatever it is that the terrorist’s friends believe', or their lifestyles at least, and the Islamic beliefs of the speaker. But the phrase which caught my eye here is “They are my brothers too because they believe in Allah and the Prophet Mohammed.” It is meant, under the circumstances to be inclusive and to extend the arm of brotherly protection and concern to those with whom the speaker feels little moral affinity or kinship, but it inadvertently exposes the divisiveness which, though sometimes only implicitly, seems to be baked into the substance of all religions. That is: “he is my brother because he believes what I believe.”
So whilst human solidarity inspired by religion is a good thing, and extending the arm of friendship to those whom you deem to be in error is a good thing, these are only stepping stones to a greater good. The human race will not reach its full potential until we can all say –
You are my brother because you breathe the same air as me and feel the warmth of the same sun as me; 
You are my brother because the atoms which make up your body are indistinguishable from those which make up mine and they were all forged billions of years ago in the cores of the same exploding stars; 
You are my brother because our fearful and superstitious (and almost extinct) ancestors may well have huddled together in the same African cave before successive generations of their offspring gradually populated the lands between that cave and the places we each call home; 
You are my brother because you feel the same hopes and fears as me; and 
You are my brother because you celebrate my joy and understand my pain.
So yes, let's rejoice when we see human solidarity inspired by religion, but let's not be satisfied until it is recognised – by all – that the greater good is to be found in human solidarity in spite of religion.

(Oh, and don't forget to check out my book)

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Reasonable Expectations - the book

Reasonable Expectations
musings on metaphysics, origins, meaning and purpose

This is a book I have recently written which is available in paperback from CreateSpace:

My purpose in writing was to explore some of the insights gained on a personal journey from religious faith to a rational understanding of the meaning of life and the secret of happiness. I was motivated mainly by the hope that I might give my readers a 'heads-up' on many things which ‐ if people are encouraged to think about as young adults (and young parents) ‐ will make for happier and more fulfilling lives in a more peaceful and harmonious world.

I have written from the perspective that, as is seems to me, the religious experience can be valuable in two main ways:
  • In as much as it develops the habits of introspection and honest evaluation of one's motivations, it generally tends to make for a happier life, and can often evoke a certain sense of compassion for others; and
  • Most religious traditions are built around a valuable core of mythical and allegorical (sometimes perhaps, accidentally allegorical) stories which, in one way or another, contain the collective wisdom of people who, in their day, represented the 'cutting edge' of the quest for meaning and happiness. So exposure to this historical journey - though often involving an intermingling of the hideous and barbaric - may, at least, provide some insight into human nature, which is of value in itself.
Be that as it may, thanks to ongoing scientific discovery, we can now be almost certain that we live in a universe where holding a superstitious belief requires implicit assent to unjustifiable 'teleological' metaphysical assumptions (specifically, that there is a supernaturally imposed purpose for everything). That is to say, careful examination has revealed a universe where the words "real" or "exist" can't be applied in any meaningful sense to anything denoted by the word "God" or the concept of a 'divine' or 'cosmic' purpose. I happily defer to Sébastien Faure's (now over 100 years old) "Twelve proofs for the non-existence of God" as being sufficient to dismiss any notion of a 'personal' god being real or as having anything other than an allegorical 'existence'.

The central theme of the book is that the adoption of a teleological metaphysic can be shown to be the origin of superstition and magical/religious thinking, as well as being the primary source of most of humanity's avoidable suffering.

The main aims of the book are:
  • to offer suggestions as to how belief in religious ideas and other superstitions have become endemic in human populations;
  • to show that much of what is held to be sacred by religious traditions is in fact equally valuable (and much easier to explain) when transplanted into a rational understanding of the real world (an 'efficient' metaphysic); and also
  • to show that there is a better way to look at the world. Better because, without looking through the murky glass of superstition, it is more beautiful; and better because it requires no mental gymnastics to demonstrate that it is true.

Here's the 'blurb':

Explained: The Meaning of Life!
Revealed: The Secret of Happiness!

"If only I had known this when I ..."
"Why didn't somebody tell me sooner?"

A down-to-earth look at the things we believe because " ... well, because we just do".
Enjoy a non-scholarly, and sometimes whimsical, stroll through an assortment of ideas which tackle the 'big questions' by asking:

- Why do you think a peacock's tail is beautiful?
- How do we know what we believe?
- What's love got to do with it?
- What does a goldfish know?
- Is contentment attainable?
- What's left of human rights?
- Can we learn from the animals?
- Where did truth and beauty come from?

The answers, if nothing else, should prove useful for starting conversations at dinner parties, but may also open a window to the perennial questions about meaning, purpose and happiness, and show that achieving them is entirely in keeping with 'Reasonable Expectations'.

Get your paperback copy from:
For enquiries or bulk order discounts please email me: iangoldthorp (a) gmail (d) com