Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trust--Why Religious People Aren't Crazy

I advise you not to skip the above video.  It's really good and will frame your reading of the below.

I was recently in conversation with someone who expressed an exceptional distaste for the, "glaring inconsistencies, logical fallacies and general ridiculousness of Christian's doctrines and holy writ."  How could anyone be so stupid as to believe in religion was the general sentiment.  Unfortunately, the way the conversation rolled I didn't get to respond quite how I wanted to, so I'd like to explain here why I disagree and explain how the religious are not as different as he'd like to believe.

Humans trust.  Homo trustiens.

Immediately you want to deny what I just said.  Your mind is flashing on your consciousness's movie screen the images and memories of lies, liars, half-truths and deception.  Yes, but why is lying so awful?  Because it's a shocking exception to the general rule of honesty.  Why is it so easy for people to lie?  

Because people are trusting.  

I'd like to show you three arenas in which this is true: our evolutionary history, the sciences and finally in religion.

Evolutionary History

Think of a toddler out on the African Savannah two hundred thousand years ago.  Or, if you'd like, imagine a Cro Magnon man 50,000 years ago in the Ice Age in northern Europe.  What does that child need most if he's to survive?  

The speed to catch a galloping animal?

The power to kill it with his/her own strength?

Sharp teeth and claws?

A keen sense of smell and sight to track down animals?

The 'duh' answers are no.  What did we have that made us an apex predator?  Two things: cooperation and knowledge.

Cooperation to hunt as a team and knowledge to be able to make weapons, traps, hooks, plans, an attack, to anticipate the animals reaction.

I hope you can see where I'm going with this.  What do both of those essential hunting strategies require?  Trust and a whole heaping hell of a lot of it.  It was paramount to trust, learn and cooperate as a team.  Not only in hunting, but also about where the watering hole was, that snakes aren't good children's toys, that this herb is good for this ailment and this for that ailment, how to plant, how to irrigate and understand the seasons, that fields need to lie fallow, and how to make fire, ad infinitum.

More recently, this has been increasingly true as the acculturation process has elaborated and years of training, drilling and parenting have become necessary to learn culture, language, rituals, mores, taboos, etc.  With all that kids have to learn there is hardly even the time to second guess the expertise and authority of those older than you.  And, what's more, hardly worth the effort since it is by far more reliable than isn't.  Bottom line: from survival on the African plains to the thriving in the metropolis trust we have evolved to be trusting machines.  It has meant our very survival.


Let's take an example.

When's your birthday?

How do you know that's really your birthday?

Well, your parents told you so.  And, ya, it can be backed up with a piece of paper from the hospital, verified with a reasonable development time line, interviewing the doctor, etc.  And, of course, why would they lie?  Chances are they wouldn't.  But, don't escape my point.  

You don't really know.

It might be a completely different date.  

There are many scientists that would object to me saying this, but science isn't all that different. (Yes, there are checks and balances--repeatability, verifiability, etc.)  I wasn't there when T. Rex was dug up, I wasn't there when the Mars lander touched down, I've never dived the Challenger Deep, I've never split an atom, I've never done the calculations for general relativity, etc.

And you know what?  Neither have the majority scientists that build off those verities.

Time, resources and money are majorly constraining fators.

Society simply isn't possible without an ENORMOUS amount of trust.  Trust that people mean what they say and that people will do what they're supposed to (like maintain water source, energy, provide food to grocery stores, punish criminals, etc.) We are immersed and tightly in these chains of trust being unable to function as a society without them.  Hardly anything we  know of great consequence we know because we've experienced it first hand.  One person found something out, taught another, then that in turn passed it on and knowledge accretes.  We'd be paralyzed if this weren't true.  There could be no progession of technology without it (Hmm, is a round wheel really better at rolling than a square one?  I'll have to try before I believe it...)


From the savannah to academia people, tribes, universities, citizens and friends have always functioned at some level on trust.  So, is religious faith so remotely incomprehensible to understand?  No.  They simply have extended their chain of trust a few more links to include the fantastical, the metaphysical.  In their mind the writers of the Bible were, in many cases, first hand witnesses to the events that they recorded.  And why would they lie?  No reason can be easily grasped (even for me) and therefore they are incorporated into the chain of trust.  It really isn't so hard to understand.  We're all experts in doing it.  You've probably done it a hundred times today.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Link: Do Humans Have Reptilian Scales?

A question submitted by none other than yours truly that got answered. (Not incredibly satisfactorily, but nevertheless) The question pertained to the evolution of finger nails. Most directly I asked if our finger nails were twenty reptilian scale remnants. Read for 2 biologist's response.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Doesn't Every Profession Have a Hippocratic Oath?

I can be sure that you've heard of the Hippocratic Oath, the well known oath that physicians take before becoming doctors.  Why have we only heard of the doctor's oath and not another profession?  Think about how this kind of commitment might change your office or life.  Studies have shown that signing a written code of conduct improve work commitment, quality and integrity.    If your profession had one, what would it look like?

I've included in parenthesis my broad summation/application.  These are subjective and you may disagree.

  • I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant: (commitment)
  • I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow. (be a learner and a teacher)
  • I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. (altruistic intent, balanced approach)
  • I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.  ('How' and not just 'what')
  • I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.  (willing to ask for help, humble)
  • I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.  (Responsible use of information and application)
  • I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick. (Human touch)
  • I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.  (Be proactive, not reactive)
  • I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.  (I'm not just my profession.   I have a larger calling)
  • If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.  (Keep the goal in mind)
What would your profession's look like?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What We Really Are--A Scrapbook

You probably only plan on skimming this.  That's okay.  I understand.  I do the same thing and am just appreciative that you're even here.  -But- I'd like to ask that while skimming you let your mind do some calisthenics.  As my (and yours I'm sure) elementary school teacher would say, "Let's put on our thinking caps."  Let the below fill the senses of your mind.

I've heard a biologist say that all birds are really dinosaurs.  In cladistics (the categorization of animals) you really can just put them as a feathered branch of reptiles and more specifically raptors (it's no coincidence that we use the same word to describe birds of prey and velociraptors).  In my mind I was transported to that moment in the movie Jurassic Park when one of the paleontologists saw a dinosaur for the first time.  I can imagine the power of that moment--awestruck that such an organism exists.  It was that wonder and awestruck power that I let fill my mind when thinking about the sparrows outside my building, the penguins of Antarctica, the emus of Australia, the California Condor or just the city side walk pigeons.  Dinosaurs are alive today.  With the wonder filled eyes of that paleontologist we can look outside and see a world where dinosaurs fly by, eat from our bird feeders and crap on our cars all the time.  In fact, I have dinosaur crap on the hood of my Mazda right now.  Amazing!  haha

So, that got me thinking.  What am I?  What are you?  

First, I imagined the people I care about dressed in animal clothing with more pronounced eyebrow ridges, then hunched over, then hairier, then in a tree, then chased into a burrow by a small raptor , then an early mammal ancestor known as a cynodont with slight amounts of sparse hair, then a slick amphibian, then a scaled lobe finned fish, then a jawless fish, then a pseudochordate of some kind, then a protist, then a bacterium, then...

...then a collection of organic molecules that got hit by lightening (or something like that)...

...then a bursting, amorphous nebula created by a super nova--the only thing powerful enough to create the heavier atoms that make up our being...

...then a rewinding video of the expansion of the universe until it collapses into a single mote within a spaceless, timeless, formless void...

So, what are we?  We are a Scrapbook of Evolution

  • We have body hair--clearly mammal.
  • Four appendages--that came from our amphibian ancestors, same with five fingers--four appendages makes sense, but five is moderately arbitrary.  We could have three fingers or a claw.
  • Our ribs--the remnants of the first rudimentary iterative body structures.
  • Our spinal chord--a revolution in biological information superhighway.
  • Our brain localized in our head--got that from the early cephalized ancestors.  Made reaction time quicker, more efficient.
  • Our eyes--once nothing more than light perceiving specks that got deeper to perceive directionality, then form, then color, etc.
  • Our jaw--from the first jawed fish.  We could have beak with five radiations like an urchin if evolution had gone otherwise, but it didn't thanks to that early fish that's 'rib' turned into a jaw.
  • Our teeth--were the first mineralized 'bone' to form in early fish.  We can thank our teeth for the rest of our skeleton.
  • Our nose was once dead end olfactory pits that ended up connecting to the larynx--a much better solution than our lungfish like ancestors that gulped.
  • Our ears are modified gill slits--think about that one.  That's why our ear has a eustachian tube--at one time that's how our ancestors 'breathed'.
We are:

Historically--the culmination of thousands of millions of years of natural selection.
Biologically--an interdependent web of specialists on the body level and at the cell level.
Chemically--a symphony and dance of molecular reactions.
Physically--a servant of the Four Fundamental Forces (strong force, weak force, electro-magnetism, gravity)--a child of the singularity.

What eyes science can give you to see majesty in the mundane, beauty in the banal, transcendence in the trivial!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Link: Humans Might Be Able to See More Than Just Rainbow?

We can make color blind mice and monkeys see color.  Why not humans?  O, and why we're at it why not make it possible for us to see infra red, UV, and maybe even polarized light?!?!  O, and there are some women that are tetrachromatic seeing either more colors and more shades of those colors and, quite frankly, that pisses me off ('cause I can't).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Link: "Pale Blue Dot" Sagan Monologue

Damn.  I got chills.  And then a fierce determination.  Please comment how this video affected you.

Another fun one:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Biological Definition of Virtue

So, I'm reading The Evolution of Virtue by Matt Ridley and he made what I thought to be a brilliant and subtle point.

pg 38--"Selfishness is almost the definition of vice...virtue is, almost by definition, the greater good of the group."

Examples of crimes he gives that exemplify selfishness--murder, theft, rape and fraud.
Examples of virtues--cooperation, altruism , generosity, sympathy, kindness, selflessness (that one's pretty blatant).

Do you see the fire within that thought?  It's both a definition and an explanation wrapped in one.  Yes, he's defining morality, but at the same time he's giving a delightful explanation of how it might have evolved--concern for group/kin welfare.

Let me ask you some questions to drive this home:

Can you be immoral to yourself?
Does being just to yourself make any sense?
Can you think of an immoral act that doesn't fit the selfishness definition?  As in, an act that somehow promotes the good of the group, but is still bad?

The answer, of course, is 'no'.  It's interesting to think about if we were a different species what our morality might be like (the above would always hold true, though.  It'd just look different).  Imagine we were praying mantis and it'd be a moral imperative to eat your husband.  Or, if you were a worker ant it'd be immoral to think about reproducing on your own.  Or, perhaps if we were some bird species plagued by parasites it might be immoral to not groom a friend.

Let's put it another way.  Look at Haidt and Joseph's domains of morality below and notice how the totality of morality can be summed up as evolution's 'desire' to maintain a certain group size (in order to be able to pack hunt, in order to be able to defend from predators, in order to have a division of labor, etc.).

Domains of Morality--Haidt and Joseph 2004

  • Harm/Care--don't harm those that either have your genes or could promote and aid the protection/duplication of it.
  • Reciprocity/Fairness--shun those that don't return favors.  When resources are limited it pays to give now in your abundance to get later in your poverty.  If you or others don't play by that rule it needs to be punished.
  • Authority/Hierarchy--groups are most cohesive with the decision making leadership of an authority figure and are most stable with their arbitration in disputes.  Thus, leaders ought to be respected.
  • Community/Coalitions--give your fair share.  Be a good citizen.  Help out another in times of need.  Promote the good of the group and you might just help out your own genes.
  • Purity--don't reproduce with a relative to avoid a build up of mutations.  Don't eat rotten foods.  Don't excreciate near where you live/eat.

This is a salient point when thinking about matters of contention.  Why is it that some religions place such inordinate attention on matters of sexual purity such as not engaging in homosexual acts?  What's the adaptive function of that?  Evolutionarily ingrained aversion to inbreeding (or, put another way, desire to only breed 'properly')?  There just may be some evolutionary history worth uncovering there.  Or, what about environmentalism.  Under what conditions might we be able to adapt to viewing pollution and environmental pillaging as severe moral infractions?

What are your thoughts?

Why All Turtles Have Beaks Instead of Teeth

I have no friggin clue.  

Can you help me think through this?  Or, just let me know you read this by commenting? haha!

Think of it, it really is an interesting question to think about how and why evolution caused them to lose their teeth.  Birds are one thing.  It seems to be for them because it's lightweight <> (but made turtles will make us completely rethink that!).  But, why turtles?  Is there something special about their diet?  Was there a special need that they had being aquatic?  Why don't they need to chew?  Why just nip/cut?   Were there other adaptations that made chewing superfluous?

Extra foder: pangolins and anteaters have lost most of their teeth in evolution, too.  The earliest turtle fossils had small remnants of teeth.

Further thoughts written later:

I would suppose they'd lose them for two reason:

1)  It was better to not have them.  As in, birds are better off without tiny ballasts in their face...

2)  They just didn't need them and evolution slowly parsed them away.  So, why didn't they need them?  They must have some other digestive adaptation that made mastication obsolete.  Like what, though?


I love to think about this stuff.  AND I love that there are  websites like this that I can bounce questions off of bona fide experts.

A very helpful contrast to make between mammals (fast metabolism, fast digestion, much chewing) and reptiles (slow metab, slow diges and hardly any chewing).  I can't think of a single reptile that chews a lot...anyone else?

It's cool to see different animals answer the same "question" in different ways (eg, how to survive off of what we have).  A for instance: manatees and green turtles have a lot of diet cross over: sea grasses.  And yet they do it in very different ways.  One chews and the other doesn't.

Perhaps in the end, it should surprise me more that we, mammals, chew.  Reptiles have found a much less costly way of doing it: just let the acid of your gut 'chew' it for several weeks.

Link: "Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey" Video

Gosh, I just can't stop watching anthropology vids.  It stimulates my mind to no end to think of the history of humans--our history.  It's also interesting to watch aboriginal people's resistance to science's explanation of their history.  It may be un-p.c. to say it, but what a shame.  It's the best story ever told.

Link: Nice Guys Finish First video

Evolution can over time favor the 'nicest'. Video by Richard Dawkins

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why Are There So Many Shades of Flowers?

It's spring again. Birds seem to be chirping more. I can see squirrels amorously chasing one another outside my apartment. Plant genetic packets in the form of pollen irritate our nasal cavities as our body tries to fight them off as intruders. The shades of nature are turning from darker browns to lighter, fresher greens. And a question comes to my mind. Why are there so many shades of flowers?

Do yourself the justice of not taking it at face value. Let yourself ask the all important scientific questions of 'why' and 'how'. Why did it evolve and how did it evolve? Think about it like this. Take another common color signal--a warning of poisonousness. Typically it's some manifestation of orange--monarchs, coral snakes, poison dart frogs as just three examples. So, why aren't are flowers the same color of, say, blue?  Not only is that not the case, but there is every single stinkin' color shade out there in the angiosperm kingdom.  Why? Well, I list out just a few thoughts of mine and I'd love to hear your contributions.

Different pollinating bug eyes: a certain bug may have evolved eyes to see certain spectrums best to see predators, members of the same species or to recognize and appreciate sexual partner's displays (think something akin to the peacock's tail). Example: a species might have evolved there eyes to distinguish their species' wing color from that of another butterfly's. The plant would then in turn evolve to cater to that spectrum that the insect can see best.

Different lighting: is the flower in full sun? Shaded? Is the light filtered through something (like leaves which cause a green light to come through a canopy)? Maybe I'm wrong about this, but doesn't the most common field flower seem to be yellow or white?  Perhaps thats the best shades for that environ. I do know that many white flowers, conversely are pollinated at night by bats or moths--white reflects the maximum quantity in dark circumstances.

Different background: Will the flower be framed in front of brown bark, green leaves, other flowers?  Don't most jungle flowers seem to be red or pink? (Keep in mind that's entirely speculative)

Different competition: if your'e a magazine, newspaper or web advertisement amongst other advertisements you've got to 'pop'. You've got to stand out amongst the crowd and say, "HEY! Over here! Pick me! Pick me!"

Different offerings: another way that flowers market themselves is by offering different nectar nutritional suites--various combinations of sugars, amino acids, nutrients and edible pollen. You've basically have to 'talk' to the bug/bee/pollinator and say, "Hey, remember me and bring your friends next time. You can find me by looking for the magenta flower." It's a calling card that the pollinator developes an affinity to and then the flower becomes a richer shade of that flower and then the pollinator becomes more inclined to that color and so on and so forth.

So, that's just a taste of the possibilities (we didn't even talk about shape and how evolution is favoring bilateral flowers!), but I hope it will get you to appreciate just a little more the marketing machines that flowers are. When I see a garden or field of flowers I, in my mind's eye, often see a plethora of 'billboards' and 'glossy magazine adds all trying to entice the easily influenceable bugs to buy what they're selling.  (surely they're the only species that happens to :) )

Friday, April 2, 2010

Link: PBS's "Becoming Human" Documentary

Link: Freaky Frog Reproduction

Link: Marathon Hunting--Bipedalism's Evolution

Link: O, My Gall! Metal Tipped Wasp!

Link: Dawkins/Pinker on Darwin/Evolutionary Psychology

Link: "Growing Up in the Universe" by Richard Dawkins

Link: What Makes Humans Unique (From Other Animals)

Link: What Would It Look Like to Put a Camera on a Hawk?

Link: Colorful Sea Life Swarm Like You've Never Seen Before