Thursday, January 31, 2013

Darwin Day 2013 in the DC Region

By Gary Berg-Cross

Darwin Day 2013 is rapidly approaching, February 12 – A Tuesday this year. In 2012 there were a few DC region events and I am happy to say that quite a few more Darwinish day events have evolved and emerged and will be available at a variety of locations.

Perhaps we have yet to arrange a BIG, day-long celebration for Darwin Day, but there is progress with things kicking off early.  So
Mon, February 4, 2013  2:15 PM Dr. David Oliver  will speak in Lynchburg, VA (Alumni Building Lounge, Alumni Building Lounge) on “ The Free Spirit in the Machine: Constraint and Freedom in the Biology of Human Action," This is about the hierarchical and evolutionary character of the natural world generally.

They are following that up with:

6:30 PM
First Unitarian Church of Lynchburg
Lynchburg, Virginia

BSH (WASH) and BaltimoreCOR is very active and has a “Darwin Month” that kicks off  the first of 4 events at the Baltimore Ethical Society  Feb. 3 at 10:30 am with: “Common Misconceptions About Evolution,” by Roger D. Sloboda,  Ira Allen Eastman Professor of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College
The 3 later events are:

Sunday, Feb. 10 at 10:30 am:  “People, Animals and Beasts:  Ethical Evolution,”
by Hugh Taft-Morales, Leader, Baltimore Ethical Society
Location:  Baltimore Ethical Society

Monday, February 11, 7:00 pm (pizza starting 6:30 pm) Film “No Dinosaurs in Heaven.”
Location: Towson University, Psychology Building (PY 304)
This event is hosted by the Towson Secular Student Alliance and co-sponsored by
the Maryland Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Harford County Area Special Interest Group Movie Night
Time:  Thursday, February 21 at 6:30 p.m.
Location: Member’s house.  Email for information to

Some events are on the weekend before the Tuesday.  So the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax  is celebrating a Darwin Day Evolution of Evolution at UUCF
Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:30 PM to (2709 Hunter Mill Road, Oakton, VA)
Dr. Jerry Poje will speak on “Evolution’s evolution: Darwinians, Eugenicists and new Neo-Lamarkians”

WASH’s Frederick chapter (FRESH) is celebrating the 12th Darwin Day with a movie night, (5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. -Movie to start at 5:45 p.m. at the Frederick City Public Library) and will include a birthday cake for Charles Darwin! Please note the day and time of our meeting is different for this month to coincide with Darwin Day. RSVPs requested to make sure we have enough supplies.


George Washington University will host what promises to be a festive afternoon and evening of events at the Marvin Center. (When a flyer is available with final list of events I will link to it here..)


 The first , sponsored by the GW Secular Society, WASH and others (see Flyer at beginning of this article) is a 1-hour lecture by Briana Pobiner, the Science Outreach and Education Program Specialist at the Smithsonian NMNH, from 4:00 to 5:00 + ( February 12th   in GWU's  Marvin Center, Room 311).  Briana's topic is "The Smithsonian's Approach to Human Evolution Education and Outreach. "  This includes work at NMNH, framed within the context of the public acceptance of evolution.

The GW Secular Society is also working on other parts of the evening and directly following this event, GW Secular Society will be tabling in the Marvin Center Lobby, directly across from the elevators, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. This will be a Darwin/Evolution Fast Facts event. Handouts will include an evolution pamphlet created by Serena Bianchi  and Kes  Schroer.


Images (WASH sites and)

Darwin Day Down Under:

Briana Pobiner:


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Let’s talk about Something Else: Teachable Moments and Unreachable Minds

By Gary Berg-Cross

In the abstract, casual moment it’s sometimes hard to get average folks to talk about topics like secular humanism, natural ethics and the like.  Sure these are important topics, but in the normal flow of things they can be a heavy lift and off putting.  But since it is important we should understand natural opportunities for such topics in the context of larger issues that ARE on the agenda to be discussed.

Following the Newtown shootings there has been justified focus on the topic of gun safety and why such things happen. There has been just a bit of discussion of non-religious views of the situation and the grief. It is what some call a “A teachable moment” – a term used widely in discussing learning and education, as a time when learning a particular topic, task or idea becomes possible or easiest for situational or developmental reasons. The concept is ancient with common sense predecessors like interest, motivation and ripeness. But it was popularized (and became perhaps too much of a buzz phrase) by Robert Havighurst in his 1952 book, Human Development and Education. The concept is also widely applied to therapy as an observation that some interventions are only successful when the “time is right” and the patient ready and open to consider something new. Religious messages often jump into these debates, witness the influence on healthcare discussions.

Of course there are other factors needed such as having the right teacher/therapist/parent/leader at a teachable moment.  A good teacher is someone not only able to communicate knowledge, but one who is a credible source also and one able to hold individual/group attention that goes along with learning.   So in the gun discussion good communicators identify where they are coming from, such as, “my perspective is as a gun owner.”  Of, course this is an easier category to understand than saying “my perspective is as a secular humanist,” so in a teachable moment we have to be ready with some back up, non-threatening explanation that includes the idea that I don’t have to be in the gun-owning tribe or with the religion belief crowd to have a say on a topic of interest like the ethics of guns. That’s probably even more difficult for people coming from the New Atheist tribe, but it is something we need to get accepted as part of the discussion of things.

As we enter a time when immigration, climate change, lowered defense spending and stimulating job growth will be big topics along with gun safety it seems appropriate to consider whether we have reachable minds.  Is the national thinking cap and cultural climate receptive and ready for freethinker’s perspectives? Can we help make it so?

A start is to work for acceptance of freethinkers as part of the conversation. Perhaps attention will be distracted and go elsewhere or sideways. We’ll see if people are interested, but it is likely to be a difficult task. In ‘Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam’ Nick Turse bemoans the fact that there was no public interest in Vietnam war crimes allegations. The public mind was largely closed and  unreachable. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre were aired, but stirred only a very brief public outrage before subsiding into indifference as talk moved on to more acceptable topics. The Winter Soldier hearings, which Vietnam veterans like now Senator Kerry participated in, were largely ignored and the testifiers treated with disgust. As John Tirman noted in a WAPO review of Turse’s book:

Turse has the journalist’s faith that exposure will result in justice, but in the case of war, there’s little evidence that the public wants to know more about atrocities, much less act upon them. British scholar Kendrick Oliver made this argument brilliantly in his book on My Lai, showing how reactions to revealed atrocities follow a pattern that ultimately leads to a rally-round-the-troops phenomenon. One could contend that war, by its very nature — and not just in Vietnam and Cambodia, but in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan — similarly leads to indifference to civilian suffering or even to blaming the victims.

This is the type of reaction freethinkers face all the time.  Revealing that one's thinking is flimsy and biased can lead to people digging in and rallying round their comfortable and unchallenged beliefs. It’s in part the problem of minds being closed by a drive towards loyalty, stability, respect for authority and group cohesiveness along with purity of thought.  Perhaps we’ve learned a bit of lesson, but still what is needed are teaching moments with the right voices ready to take up the issues.



Monday, January 28, 2013

Film Festival Season in 2013

By Gary Berg-Cross

Spring is not yet here, but film festival time in DC has started. The cultural stretching 17th annual Iranian Film Festival is on at the Freer and Sackler Galleries (co-curated with the Carter Long of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Marian Luntz of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.) The films are in Persian but with English subtitles. Rhino Season (a haunting love story spanning three decades is next up Friday, February 1, 7 pm and you can the trailer.

The series kicked off with an award winner called  Modest Reception: (Paziraie Sadeh ) The latest work of director/actor Mani Haqiqi  who also stars with Taraneh Alidoosti.

Here is a bit of a Synopsis:  

Mysteriously tasked with giving away huge sums of money by whatever means possible, Kaveh and Layla drive through the remote, war-torn and poor mountains of Iran with a trunkful of cash which they lie about and  throw at
every poor and unfortunate person they meet.  They are deeply troubled by it all and complicate the lives of others with their own manipulations seemingly aimed purely at degradation.

Perhaps the message is about the destructive possibilities of wealth without wisdom in a world that need both. What begins as a seemingly harmless game soon reveals itself to be a twisted bout of charity as the power, humiliation, and shame inherent in their act plays out between the privileged couple and the impoverished villagers.

The Film won the Free Spirit Award at the Warsaw Film Festival in last October as a film with unique structure, strong ideas, various mixes of Islam and secularism colliding and excellent performances, if a bit puzzling.

"So help me . . . what?"

by Edd Doerr

Eight Neanderthals in the Arizona legislature (Reps Thorpe, Borrelli, Seel, Shope, Dial, Livingston, Crandall, Smith) have introduced a bill to require all high school students as a condition for graduation to take an oath similar to that of the US President and ending with "So help me God", but without the "or affirm" as allowed for all elected officials in the US.

If this piece of lunacy were passed it would bar from graduation not only nontheists but also Quakers, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Muslims, polytheists, and others. So what is wrong with saying "So help me Jupiter, Thor, Loki, Ahura Mazda, Siva, Kali, Brahma, Isis, Osiris, Juju  . . . etc etc"?

Election to public office should be contingent on passing a drug test and scoring at least 90 on an IQ test.

Discussing Science Left and Right

There is a something on a competing book called, "Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left“ that is being promoted by more conservative circles.  One  recommendation comes from Michael Medved, nationally syndicated talk radio host, author of The 10 Big Lies about America...He's not my favorite source of ideas and  while Medved finds it " Entertaining, enlightening, and important" (along with the American Enterprise Instituted)  I believe  other review such as Publisher's weekly that summarize it as follows:
While frequently illuminating, Berezow and Campbell employ sweeping generalizations (e.g., "[I]n truth, Europe is a nice place. European countries have good food.") that often undermine convincing arguments. And their list of 12 issues that would require a blend of science and politics is underwhelming—among them: "Managing resources efficiently" and "Addressing global poverty." (Sept.)
Of course the people who really like to use the book are anti-evolutionists such as the site which hawks the book in arn article:
"Science Left Behind Can Teach Us about Political Tactics of Intelligent Design Critics"
You might also add climate change critics using the book to blur issues too.  Below is a longer review by Ken Silber of the book and comparing it to Mooney's book that was discussed at the December meeting.


Review: Science Left Behind

I opened with some eagerness my review copy of Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, by Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell. Having spent much time in recent years criticizing conservatives for denial and ignorance of scientific facts, and being a center-right type myself, I am interested in similar failings on the left. But this is a badly disappointing book.
Some time ago, at David Frum’s blog, I criticized Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain for (in my view) overstating its case that science is revealing a broad tendency among conservatives to deny or distort facts. Let me say now that Mooney’s book is a model of fair-mindedness compared to Science Left Behind.

Berezow and Campbell open by setting up their target: "progressives." They quickly unleash a bombardment of stereotypes:
Who  are the people we’re calling progressives? Generally, they’re the kind of people who think that overpriced granola from Whole Foods is healthier and tastier. They’re the people who buy “Terra Pass” bumper stickers to offset their cars’ carbon emissions. And they’re the sort of people whose beliefs allow them to feel morally superior to everybody else who disagrees—even if scientists are among those doing the disagreeing.

The authors distinguish between “progressives” and “liberals” on the grounds that the former evince a social authoritarianism not shared by the latter. I find this rather notional, given the virtual interchangeability with which the terms are widely used. Supposedly, though, whereas liberals favor economic interventionism but “value social liberty,” progressives
seek dominion over issues such as the environment, food production, and education. They endorse bans on plastic grocery bags, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, and home schooling. They hold opinions that are not based on physical reality about how energy and development should work. And, most significant, they claim that all of their beliefs are based on science—even when they aren’t.

So it seems that progressives are antithetical to science as a matter of definition. Oddly, this comes just a few pages after the authors assure us that “the purpose of this book is not to demonize all progressives. We just want to demonize the loony ones.” And: “Though some progressives are pro-science, many within their ranks are not.”

Then there’s a look back to what progressive once meant, but the authors are no better on their history. Consider this:
For a time, progressivism made for good politics. [Theodore] Roosevelt was joined under the banner of “progressives” by Democrats including Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryant [sic]. All of these men aimed to mobilize rationalism and science to promote “progress,” just as their philosophy’s name suggested.

Bryan is better described as a populist than a progressive, and the notion that he “aimed to mobilize rationalism and science” would’ve been news to H.L. Mencken during the Scopes Monkey Trial.

This just scratches the surface of what’s wrong with this book. The authors present various examples of  leftists being out of step with science. Some of these are issues that cut across ideological boundaries (anti-vaccine hysteria, for instance). Some are issues where the left-wing anti-science types have had little success in getting the policies they want or even getting support from Democratic politicians (genetically modified foods). Some are just marginal and obscure issues to begin with (the use of compostable utensils in the Capitol Hill cafeteria).

Berezow and Campbell are right that there are anti-science attitudes on the left. They are wrong to see these as of similar current significance to anti-science views on the right.  They fail to show any issue that is a progressive counterpart to the conservative stance of recent years on climate change—that is to say, an important issue where one side, including its elite, is not only grossly out of step with the scientific community but has succeeded in getting its anti-science views reflected in public policy.

After filling the book with tendentious and trivial point-scoring, the authors close with a chapter on the science-related issues that "really matter." This is filled with banality such as “it is imperative that Americans have a serious debate about the country’s future in space.” Thanks for the tip.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Evidences can go both ways, no exception for gods.

By Mathew Goldstein

Over a year ago, Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the monthly "Skeptic" columnist for Scientific American, wrote a short article on skeptic blog titled ARE YOU AN ATHEIST OR AGNOSTIC? To his credit, he has openly identified himself as an atheist for many years, although he prefers to label himself as a skeptic. However, his initial argument for atheism is actually a weaker argument for non-theism. Furthermore, he first claims that it is not possible to have positive evidence for atheism and then he contradicts himself by claiming that we have positive evidence for atheism.

Michael Shermer points out that "we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally." This is true in the sense that we must choose to worship, pray to, or otherwise obey the instructions allegedly provided by, a God. But people can believe that God has not given them instructions, isn't asking or seeking to be worshipped, doesn't respond to prayers, etc. Such people believe in a non-personal God, so they aren't theists. They are deists. Michael Shermer defines such deists as atheists because they live their life as if there is no God. It is more accurate to call them non-theists.

Michael Shermer then emphasizes that it is untenable to assert that a God does not exist. He says, parenthetically, that "you cannot prove a negative." This is false. Sure, it is difficult to "prove" that something doesn't exist, but that doesn't mean that evidence never can speak against an existence claim. We have evidences that flying pigs and talking donkeys do not exist, never have existed, and never will exist. To believe that such creatures exist is unreasonable precisely because they are counter evidenced.

He then says that, as skeptics, we should "not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented." I agree with Michael Shermer here that skepticism is the correct approach. But he is wrong to assert that atheism is tenable only when it "withholds belief in God for lack of evidence." His argument that the only choices are between an untenable certainty that there is no God and a tenable withholding of belief in a God creates a false dichotomy. A tenable third choice is to actively believe that there are no gods on the grounds that the weight of the overall available evidences favors the no God conclusion. Michael Shermer makes bad excuses for refusing to even consider this possibility. It should be obvious that we all actively believe that many existence claims asserted by many different people are false, which is why we call them fictions.

What isn't so obvious is why God existence claims can only have supporting evidences when other existence claims can also have opposing evidences. Michael Shermer surely knows enough about biology, physics, and sociology to know that our universe appears to operate on a strictly materialistic basis, yet apparently he won't admit that this is evidence against an immaterial mind and immaterial, willful agent. Or maybe he is unwilling to acknowledge that evidence against immaterial minds and willful agents is evidence against gods? Does anyone believe in an entirely materialistic God that operates entirely within the laws of physics? No one should because such a naturalistic "God" is completely superfluous.

Note that Michael Shermer could also argue that it is untenable to assert that a God does exist, and that "you cannot prove a positive." Whatever evidence there is for a god, Michael Shermer the skeptic could point out that this same evidence could be interpreted as being produced by aliens with advanced technology who are intent on fooling us. Lots of people get diverted by this misdirected notion that we require proof to properly justify our beliefs (even though in practice these same people hold many beliefs without this unreasonable and impossible "proof" standard). They argue that we cannot prove one way, or the other way, or both ways, and then they insist that we must stop there and withhold judgement. But it makes no sense to stop there without evaluating what, if anything, the evidences say, since evidences can favor one conclusion over others. There is a word for this "there can be no proof, end of story" stance: It is a cop-out.

Michael Shermer concludes his argument by saying: "I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed." This then becomes an inducement to read his book titled The Believing Brain in which he presents "extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa." So Michael Shermer does assert that there are empirical evidences that gods are fictions after all. He isn't merely withholding belief for lack of evidence, he is saying there are positive evidences against. So why didn't he acknowledge from the beginning that the evidences can go either way and there are evidences against?

I think Shermer is an atheist rather than a non-theist. But he isn’t allowing his atheism to shine through. He is hiding his atheism behind his skepticism and a non-theistic ‘I don’t believe’ stance. Maybe he lacks the self-confidence to defend a more assertive “I believe there are no gods” stance. Atheism is 100% defensible on a straightforward weight of the overall evidence foundation.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Gun Issues: Sometimes Global Suggestions are just too Simple to be a Solution


By Gary Berg-Cross

Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, wrote in the Washington Post, recently on the gun problem and mental health. The general idea is that better “mental health services” would help prevent “mass shootings.  Building better facilities for the mentally ill and being more proactive about putting dangerous people in them seems a reasonable precaution given the abundance of weapons in these United States.  But can we identify such dangerous people?

Seligman is not so sure that we should head off in that direction without some thought.  For one thing it is a seductive, mass effort that could deflects us from “other actions that would save lives." That is it may serve as Seligman put it to "compound our national reluctance to face facts about what can and cannot be changed."

And then there is the problem of the maturity of understanding the concept of mental health and illness (MI)  itself along with treatment. Seligman and others are disappointed with things like drug therapy which has been a 25 year effort at billions dollars costs. It’s a seductive model based in part of the idea of brain chemistry and balance.  Powerful model, but perhaps only part of the picture.  Magic bullet meds offers little current promise to confidently mitigate violence in the mentally ill.

Part of the problem is as developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan put it an article called “The Ghost in the Lab”  is that there have been too many clinical psychology misadventures in understanding what we broadly call Mental Illness (MI).Sure the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM) provides Torah-like guidance on allowable categories for mental illness. But these psychiatry-based categories are rather superficially (faith?) based and are indeed the only disease categories in all of medicine that do not take etiology (development) or cause into account. Basing disease category diagnosis only on symptoms is a no-no to a developmentist. Kagan points out that this would never occur in mature health fields like cancer or cardiology or immunology, where you always diagnose on the basis of the cause as well as symptoms.

If we are really serious about making progress on MI we need to collect psychological and biological evidence, not just reports of symptoms. And indeed there is growing evidence (Drs. Paul McHugh and Phillip Slavney in "The Perspectives of Psychiatry.") that there are several causes for major depressive disorder. In other words something we call by one name is more like a family of 5- 6 different diseases with 5-6 different causes:

“origins in brain disease (e.g., autism, schizophrenia); temperamental biases for anxiety and depression (e.g., phobias, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder); temperamental biases that make it difficult to regulate impulsive behavior (e.g., ADHD, conduct disorder); or distressful life encounters (e.g., grief, adjustment disorders).” (from APA Monitor)

One single "family" or method cannot explain all mental distress and simple programs based on these might be expensive and counterproductive without the proper science.


Guns and MI :

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Life Begins When? How much money is involved?

Ok, folks, the RCC is now toast.  Their teachings that life begins at conception have now been exposed as so much rubbish - IF it's going to cost the Church money in a lawsuit!

Turns out, when a man sues a Catholic hospital for malpractice because his wife and the twins she was carrying inside her died when she turned up in the emergency room and her doctor never bothered to answer a page—well, things get a little tricky. Yes, the Catholic hospital adheres to the strict Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church, as set forth by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And yes, those directives include the claim that "[t]he Church's defense of life encompasses the unborn" and a mandate to uphold "the sanctity of life 'from the moment of conception until death.'" But come on. That obviously does not apply when Catholic Health Initiatives, the Church-affiliated organization that runs the Church-affiliated St. Thomas More Hospital where a young woman and her two unborn fetuses died, is the lead defendant in a lawsuit:
Instead, they are arguing state law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds that those fetuses are not persons with legal rights.
As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, the court “should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term ‘person,’ as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive. Colorado state courts define ‘person’ under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses.”

 So, if you EVER hear a Catholic say that the RCC Teaches that life begins at conception, now you know where to direct their attention to give that claim the lie!

If ever I have seen a more disgusting example of religious hypocrisy, this one is pretty doggone near the top of that list!

Robert Ahrens
The Cybernetic Atheist

Monday, January 21, 2013

A poem for MLK Jr. Day

For Martin Luther King Day poet, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez read a poem , at the Peace Ball, written in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 Sanchez, one of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, is Laura Carnell Professor of English and Women's Studies at Temple University. She has authored  13 books, including Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems,. Her memorial poem, Morning Sun and Evening Walk, reproduced below was published there. (A video of Sanchez reciting her poem as part of a larger talk is available on

Morning Song and Evening Walk

Tonite in need of you
and God
I move imperfect
through this ancient city.
Quiet. No one hears
No one feels the tears
of multitudes.
The silence thickens
I have lost the shore
of your kind seasons
who will hear my voice
nasal against distinguished
O I am tired
of voices without sound
I will rest on this ground
full of mass hymns.

You have been here since I can remember Martin
from Selma to Montgomery from Watts to Chicago
from Nobel Peace Prize to Memphis, Tennessee.
Unmoved along the angles and corners
of aristocratic confusion.
It was a time to be born
forced forward a time
to wander inside drums
the good times with eyes like stars
and soldiers without medals or weapons
but honor, yes.
And you told us: the storm is rising against the
privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no
shelter in isolation or armament
and you told us: 
the storm will
not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of
the earth enables men (and women) everywhere to live
in dignity and human decency.

All summerlong it has rained
and the water rises in our throats
and all that we sing is rumored
Whom shall we call when this song comes of age?
And they came into the city carrying their fastings
in their eyes and the young 9-year-old Sudanese
boy said, "I want something to eat at nite a
place to sleep."
And they came into the city hands salivating guns,
and the young 9-year-old words snapped red
with vowels:
Mama mama Auntie auntie I dead I dead I deaddddd.

In our city of lost alphabets
where only our eyes strengthen the children
you spoke like Peter like John
you fisherman of tongues
untangling our wings
you inaugurated iron for our masks
exiled no one with your touch
and we felt the thunder in your hands.
We are soldiers in the army
we have to fight, although we have to cry.
We have to hold up the freedom banners
we have to hold it up until we die.
And you said we must keep going and we became
small miracles, pushed the wind down, entered
the slow bloodstream of America
surrounded streets and "reconcentradas," tuned
our legs against Olympic politicians elaborate cadavers
growing fat underneath western hats.
And we scraped the rust from old laws
went floor by floor window by window
and clean faces rose from the dust
became new brides and bridegrooms among change
men and women coming for their inheritance.
And you challenged us to catch up with our
own breaths to breathe in Latinos Asians Native Americans
Whites Blacks Gays Lesbians Muslims and Jews, to gather
up our rainbow-colored skins in peace and racial justice
as we try to answer your long-ago question: Is there
a nonviolent peacemaking army that can shut down
the Pentagon?
And you challenged us to breathe in Bernard Haring's words:
the materialistic growth--mania for
more and more production and more
and more markets for selling unnecessary
and even damaging products is a
sin against the generation to come
what shall we leave to them:
rubbish, atomic weapons numerous
enough to make the earth
uninhabitable, a poisoned
atmosphere, polluted water?

"Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful
thing compared to love in dreams," said a Russian writer.
Now I know at great cost Martin that as we burn
something moves out of the flames
(call it spirit or apparition)
till no fire or body or ash remain
we breathe out and smell the world again
Aye-Aye-Aye Ayo-Ayo-Ayo Ayeee-Ayeee-Ayeee
Amen men men men Awoman woman woman woman
Men men men Woman woman woman
Men men Woman woman
Men Woman

Posted by Gary Berg-Cross (see his earlier blog on MLK from last year)

Images from Peace Ball and other MLK celebration sites.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Simple Summaries of Things to Know -Not so Simple

By Gary Berg-Cross

I don’t trust (by definition) oversimplifications, but as an aid to a longer journey of understanding I can enjoy a wise, clever and well informed mind’s pithy summarizations.  A case in point is Richard Feynman (fierce & avowed atheist even as a young man and evidenced by his family battles to opt out of Jewish celebrations):

At almost thirteen I dropped out of Sunday school just before confirmation because of differences in religious views but mainly because I suddenly saw that the picture of Jewish history that we were learning, of a marvelous and talented people surrounded by dull and evil strangers was far from the truth.

                       Richard P. Feynman to Tina Levitan, February 7, 1967

He expressed a new affirmative stance this way:

"I thought nature itself was so interesting that I didn't want it distorted (by miracle stories). And so I gradually came to disbelieve the whole religion."
What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)

Well that’s not the generalization I’m thinking of, valuable as it is as background.  It more in the realm of Physics as published in his famous Lectures on Physics, including the layman accessible material re-published as Six Easy Pieces.  There he argued that the most important scientific knowledge - from physics to biology - is the simple fact that all things are made of atoms. Here is how he phrased it:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied...
Six Easy Pieces, p.4) 

Everything made of small units like atoms is a key idea to understanding the world and it plays out in more than Physics. Feynman sees it in biology too – 

everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.”

Well I might not agree entirely here, but a physics point of view explains much and it took, as RF notes :
“some experimenting and theorizing to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted, and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.”  (Six Easy Pieces, p.20) 

A temping simplification, but perhaps we need to be cautious of this as the most useful basis for our understanding. I think that you can argue, as Biologist Ernst Mayr has, for the importance of biology/evolutionary biology as an independent science, different from chemistry/physics and deserving of its own, distinct philosophy. Reductionist “understanding” of reality, I would argue, is too naive a jump and doesn’t get us to fuller explanations. In the diagram below you can see this view and how it gets extended form the molecular level to a meso-view of Biology and then on to Psychological realm of things like knowing and belief followed by populations of people.  Gee, maybe I can explain why some populations believe in God.  

Not so fast.  It gets complicated, so we need to qualify things as we move on from small grain atoms to meso- and psych-social phenomena.

It seems to me that basic unit frame is misleading for biology, since lower level functions cannot explain the functions of more complex organization of matter as are always found in living things. As I have in the diagram we have emergence.

It is even more misleading at higher scaled phenomena. Still there is much that can be imported from a Physics and Chemistry view into biology.  I’m thinking here is biology as physical networks. In the 1930s, physiologist Max Kleiber, put a number on this general idea. He showed that an animal's metabolic rate is proportional to its body mass raised to the power of 3/4 .  This relationship has been found to hold across the living world from bacteria to blue whales and giant redwoods, over more than 20 orders of magnitude difference in size.

Scaling laws based on exponents in which the denominator is a multiple of four apply to a host of other biological variables, such as lifespan.  In the 90s West, G. B., Brown, J. H. & Enquist(1)  found an explanation for the scaling laws in the dynamics of organisms‘ internal transport of nutrients and other resources
"There's maybe 200 scaling laws that have quarter powers in them," says West.

OK, so there is that.  But my candidate for a key idea is Evolution. Evolution unifies Biology and as Richard Dawkins said, nothing in Biology makes sense without evolution. That’s a highly informative propositions up there with matter is composed of units. One might also put it as a theory that the world is steadily changing, so organisms transform over time and this takes place via natural selection.   Daniel Dennett provides the importance of the idea more elaborately:

'in a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.’

I like this appeal to unifying key ideas across scientific domains. Call it consillience if you like as E. O. Wilson does. And, not surprisingly, evolution also plays a key role in evolution, although that is a more recent development of note.
Human, cognitive evolution, is one of those candidate areas to provide a pithy insight.  I would make a start on a summary in the somewhat simply in the Feynman and Dawkins sentence style:

The capacity for human cognition is the result of evolutionary processes and is manifest in such processes as cognitive biases and reasoning.

Of course we may throw in some units that are involved in evolution.  Genes, RDA and DNA come to mind but they work as part of a system and so does natural selection.  Things seems a bit more complicated.  I’ll come back to that.

Various branches of Psychology including the recent thrusts in evolutionary psychology and decision science are the advanced outposts of experimentation and theorizing to investigate this idea framed as a hypothesis.  The WASH MDC chapter’s January lecture by Elizabeth Cornwell on “The Evolution of Sex” was a tour de force excursion in this realm.  By connecting the topic to “Why God is so Concerned with Sex” Dr. Cornwell takes a first step towards what might be some things to consider in the connection of evolution to issues of Religion.

But to get closer to that topic we might step back to the idea of atoms and such.  I didn’t provide a key sentence for Chemistry and that stands between Physics and Bio.  One thought is that we might put forward the Periodic Table as listing the chemical units. But many, many things of interest are molecular and thus higher units. We might suggest as a key thing to help understanding this constructed chemical world something about the chemical bond and how units get put together.  And it is this varying ways of composting structures from units that gets increasingly interesting and complicates things.  By the time we get to Biological organisms we are into a multitude of relations and many of then like individual development and specie’s variations are contingent.  Here history matters in ways it doesn’t to an atom and that makes stating a laws for biology a bit more difficult.

In physics, laws are intended to be universal.  In evolution, such laws seem hard to come by.  Even the "law" that acquired characters are not inherited has exceptions, because not all heredity depends on the sequence of bases in nucleic acids (something noted by John Maynard Smith) So Evolutionary theory is NOT a “law” derived as things are in Physics from mathematics. It’s not that we can’t make summary statements, but that the steps to go from there to some well understood and somewhat complete explanation gets pretty drawn out.

Think of gas atoms colliding to produce gross phenomena like pressure. Sure we have a PV=NRT equation that lets us figure some things out.  There is no such simple, closed law for evolution.  It matters what the history of atoms of bio -species and genes has been.  Our Bio candidate of evolution is not a "law" in the mathematical sense of the term. One’s tendency to be chubby gets partially explained by genetics but it is dynamic and interacts with many factors life. As part of the biological part we might have integrate the networks of Biology from neural networks, genetic and metabolic networks or patterns of protein interaction.  It’s all important and part of interlocking systems that have evolved over time.  And then it gets to interact in humans with culture.

For all these reasons of contingency and varied relations one is drawn into saying more about what seems a simple thing to begin with.  And perhaps it is these summaries of the interactions that are involved that should be part of what we need to know and would pass along as wisdom to a post apocalyptic world. That and advice to be skeptical. As Feynman put it:

“I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Image Credits

Simple Explanations

Richard Feynman:

Reductionism Diagram:  by Gary Berg-Cross from a talk to the Evolutionary Society, “Arguing for Biological Autonomy” &  Biological Reality, Discussions of E.Mayr’s 25th book, What Makes Biology Unique?:Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline