Monday, April 28, 2008

Racism and Religion

Belief in God and the afterlife is precisely as immoral, and precisely as offensive, as racist belief, and for precisely the same reasons.

This sounds like a rather offensive and bizarre statement, doesn't it? How the heck can a good Christian or other religious believer, just for being a believer, be lumped together with Nazis and racists and other evil jerks of that stripe?

To explain what I mean by my opening sentence, I will have to explore a couple of fundamental questions about Racism. Why is racism morally wrong? And is it morally wrong to hold racist beliefs even if one does not act on them? In other words, is it evil to hold racist beliefs even if one is not actually personally shoving Jews into gas chambers, lynching black people, or refusing to hire people with Hispanic surnames?

Racism is wrong because the underlying theory is factually incorrect, to the best of our scientific knowledge as a species. Contrary to what racists believe, people do not fundamentally differ in matters of intelligence, moral fiber, laziness, or worth as human beings in any significant or systematic way related to race. We differ far more individually from other members of our respective races than our race differs on average from other races. This is according to the best of our scientific knowledge in areas such as genetics, biology, neuroscience, and so forth.

The same goes for most other forms of discrimination. Skin color does matter when applying pancake makeup. It does not matter when applying for a job. Gender matters when making babies, but not when making bond trades or dinner. Ethnic origins matter when deciding whether or not to get tested for Sickle Cell Anemia, but should not be used as a test of fitness for political office.

Racism is treating race and ethnicity as if it matters in subject areas where, to the best of our scientific knowledge, race does not matter. Racism is morally wrong because it is factually wrong. If Nazis had been correct in thinking that Jews were disease-ridden subhuman vermin bent on destroying human society and profiting off of its destruction, then they would have been perfectly morally justified in marching Jews into gas chambers, simply as a form of self-defense. If Confederate plantation owners had been right in believing that blacks were subhuman creatures without the natural intelligence or moral judgment to be fit for anything other than life as a slave, then they would have been perfectly morally justified in enslaving them. If present-day racists are right in believing that all Hispanics are lazy, uneducated wetbacks without the qualifications, ability, or work ethic to make good employees, then they would be perfectly justified in refusing to hire them.

But because those theories about the biological nature of racial groups were and are factually incorrect, those beliefs, and the actions based on those beliefs, were and are morally repugnant. Jews are people just like the rest of us. Blacks are no more or less deserving of freedom than anyone else. Hispanics have amongst their number the usual mix of good and bad employees. Racial distinctions are meaningless, except in a tiny handful of very narrow scientific matters directly related to the minuscule differences of DNA that give rise to the visible phenotypic differences that are used to define race. In gross physical appearance, and a handful of obscure medical details, race and ethnicity matter...but in all political, moral, and economic spheres, race is a meaningless distinction. Gender is somewhat more meaningful, but still, outside of a handful of narrow contexts directly related to the physical and genetic differences between them, men and women are pretty much alike. None of those differences have the slightest bearing on any political, moral, or economic question.

Treating racial and ethnic differences as if they matter outside of those narrow contexts is the only workable definition of racism. The various political, moral, theological, and pseudo-scientific theories that claim otherwise are, to the best of our knowledge, completely and utterly wrong. Demonstrably and provably wrong. Refusal to accept this fact is what makes racism and related beliefs morally wrong, it is a form of intellectual dishonesty, quite apart from any violent or economically exploitative side-effects that flow from trying to put those flawed theories into practice. Even if those beliefs are not acted on, those beliefs themselves, because they are still factually wrong, are morally wrong to hold in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If it's morally right to kill someone based on a true belief of the danger they pose, and morally wrong to kill them based on a false belief of a danger they pose, then it is not the killing that is wrong, it is the factually incorrect belief that is the true moral outrage.

So racist beliefs are morally wrong to hold, even if one does not act on them. It is wrong to think blacks are inferior, whether or not you are actually hanging them from trees. It is wrong to think of Jews as subhuman vermin, even if you aren't actually marching them off to Auschwitz. It is wrong to think of Hispanics as inferior, even if you are not actually refusing to hire people with a Z at the end of their last name. It is the factually unsupportable belief that is the problem, and the moral wrong, not the actions which logically follow from such beliefs. If the belief is justified, so is the action. If the belief is not justified, neither is the action.

So now we apply this reasoning to religious beliefs. To the best of our scientific knowledge, there is no God. There is no possibility of an afterlife. The universe in general, and earth and life on it in particular, arose through completely natural processes with no divine inteverention whatsoever. Miracles do not happen, the laws of physics always apply. To believe otherwise flies in the face of quite literally everything we know about science, history, and the way the universe works. For one proof of this, see my previous posting on this blog.

Just like racism, religion's flawed theories have historically led to violence, oppression, and economic exploitation when someone tries to put them into practice. Specific religious beliefs, such as the inerrancy of Christian or Muslim scripture, the infallibility of the Catholic Pope, the status of the Jews as God's Chosen People, the sanctity of the Hindu caste system, and the innate sinfulness of women, have in the past led (with sad logical inevitability) to acts of horrifying violence and injustice. Practically every organized religion has amongst its official doctrines and scriptures at least some concepts that justify or encourage such acts of violence, even if those aspects of scriptures or doctrine are not generally adhered to in the present day.

So religion faces the same problems as racism: it is an unsupportable belief under the current state of scientific knowledge, and it has historically shown a tendency to lead to violence when these factually incorrect beliefs are applied to the real world.

But surely, you may object, religion has also led to the creation of great art, the commission of great works of charity, the building of hospitals, and so forth? Well, the Nazis built the Autobahn, southern plantation mansions were quite beautiful buildings, and I for one actually like the architecture of Albert Speer and the music of Richard Wagner. Racists and have created great works of art. That still doesn't justify their continuing to hold demonstrably false beliefs that fly in the face of scientific evidence.

And racism has even had a few positive social effects. The creation of a racist social order in the early American colonies was fundamental to the creation of a social order in which poor whites were granted the same sort of social privileges as rich whites, something which had not been possible in the previous class-based social order back in Europe. And it was this racism-catalyzed breaking down of social barriers within the white community that made possible the wide acceptance of the ideal that all (white) men were created equal, the omission of that unspoken but widely-understood parenthetical interpolation thus being the foundation of the later extension of such rights and privileges to the non-white and eventually the non-male population. And that's ignoring the positive aspects of Racism's retarded love child, Nationalism, which has contributed to many positive political and social changes, alongside the obvious negative influences it has also had. These positive social effects, however, still do not justify the fundamentally incorrect beliefs at the core of Racism, Nationalism, Sexism, and other unjustly discriminatory belief systems, a wrongness that render them immoral to hold in the face of contrary evidence, regardless of whatever few positive social aspects they may contain.

Of course, one could also counter that the oft-claimed bad effects of religion, the crusades and inquisitions, the jihads and witch-burnings, were not really caused by religion, but rather, were cases of religion being cynically misused as justification for naked acts of theft, conquest, and economic exploitation. And there's a monumental grain of truth behind that claim. The problem is, the exact same thing can, of course, be applied to the examples of Racism's bad effects listed above. Southern slave owners in the antebellum south benefited enormously from the socioeconomic effects of slavery, and it was their fear that an emerging abolitionist majority in the North might threaten that socioeconomic order that led to the Civil War...just as their ancestors' economic interest in finding a source of cheap labor to grow cash crops in the colonies had been the impetus behind the creation of the slave system in the first place. Formal racist theories can be said to have arisen to justify economic exploitation, not the other way around. The Nazis were quite open about the fact that they wanted to conquer, enslave, and economically exploit the “lesser” races of the world, and their theories about the evil machinations of the Jews can be thought of as mere propaganda, justifying Nazi exploitation of the Jews by claiming prior Jewish exploitation of the German people. And of course, that hypothetical racist business manager refusing to hire Hispanics thus faces less competition and opposition when he tries to hire his (presumably white) friends and relatives instead. Because racist and religious atrocities both equally can be excused as mere window-dressing for baser economic and political motives, the fact that the Crusaders were motivated by greed for lands and money as well as by the desire to earn forgiveness for their sins by liberating Jerusalem from the rule of Infidels cannot be used to differentiate between the bad outcomes of religious theories from the bad outcomes of racist theories.

Yes, both racism and religion have been used to falsely justify selfish acts of conquest, theft, and exploitation. One may argue that those tendencies in human psychology that lead to such selfish acts will always be with us, and thus eliminating religious or racist beliefs will not end, or even significantly reduce, the occurrence of such acts. And, sadly, this may be true. But surely removing a common justification for such acts will, at the very least, reduce the number of people who can thus be easily duped into fighting, killing, and dying to further some cynical leader's economic or political gain. The poor whites who bled on the battlefield on behalf of the Confederacy's slave owners were not acting in their own economic interests, but their flawed racist thinking led them to incorrectly think they were. The same goes for the poor Nazi foot soldiers in World War Two. And the same goes for those poor peasants who went off on Crusade, most of them dying in the process, supposedly for the good of their own souls, but really for the good of the Kings and Nobles who hoped to gain loot, new lands, and new feudal fiefdoms. Without that nice-sounding religious propaganda, how many of them would have gone along with such a mad scheme? Eliminating racism and religion will remove two powerful propaganda weapons from the arsenal of the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous, two sadly effective means of fooling their subordinates into dying on their behalf.

So if religious belief is exactly as unsupportable, exactly as incorrect, and thus exactly as dangerous, as racism, how should we treat religious ideals, and the people who hold them? Exactly as we treat racists. When someone says, “God bless you,” react the same as if they had said, “Heil Hitler,” in shock and outrage. When someone says they just got back from Mass, or the Mosque, or Temple, react as if they had said they just got back from a KKK cross-burning, in shock and outrage. Accord religious leaders and clergymen the same social cold-shoulder you would to the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, or a member of the White Aryan Resistance. Refuse to vote for politicians who ostentatiously flaunt their religious beliefs, just as you would refuse to vote for a segregationist or Nazi. If someone wants to say Grace before eating dinner, get up and walk out of the room, the same as you would if they just uttered the N-word. Treat an invitation to a Bible Study class or any other religious ceremony as you would an invitation to a Nazi party rally or a cross-burning.

For in all these cases, what that person is doing is just as rude, just as immoral, just as evil, and precisely as wrong as if they actually were a Klansman, a Nazi, or any other form of racial bigot. Recall that, to the extent that racism has been ended in America, it was largely ended not by killing or imprisoning racists, but by non-racists in society refusing to politely ignore racist behavior, speech, and ideals; by non-racists calling racists out when they uttered racial slurs, or spouted racist beliefs, and by non-racists refusing to vote for candidates that pandered to the racist demographic.

This is not to say that government should censor religious speech or suppress religious beliefs. I do believe in freedom of thought, and that government has no role in suppressing ideals or ideologies, no matter how offensive or unsupported by facts, so long as those beliefs are not actually put into practice in a way that harms others. That is not government's job. Government should not censor racist speech, religious speech, or political speech, because government must remain neutral on such questions. Government must be the government of everyone, including the idiots and the assholes. On a more optimistic note, we NEED stubborn, pig-headed people who refuse to accept the current consensus of scientific truth, because it is those who refuse to accept the conventional wisdom who, at least theoretically, are able to generate new knowledge and correct past mistakes, by looking for better answers than the ones already found. And a handful of important scientific and historical truths were indeed first discovered by individuals seeking (usually unsuccessfully) to find scientific support for a religious or racist belief.

What I am saying, however, is that people who care about intellectual honesty and scientific truth should cease being “polite” when they hear or see religious speech or behavior. They should not fear to be “rude” when it comes to speaking out about just how ludicrous and factually incorrect religious beliefs are. They should shun the ostentatiously religious whenever possible, refuse to take part in religious ceremonies, refuse to swear religious oaths, refuse to pander to the stupidly religious around them.

Here in America, people who care about intellectual honesty and scientific truth are, depressingly, in the minority. We are in the situation faced by the Freedom Riders, spreading the word of non-racism across the Jim Crow south. We are likely to face harassment, persecution, and in extreme cases, personal violence. Of course, we shouldn't be quite so rude that we get burnt at the stake, or even slapped. But, whenever possible, whenever we can get away with it without being subject to personal violence, we should treat the religious exactly as they deserve: like the deluded, dishonest, disreputable and despicable people they are.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

John Edward Schultz, RIP 1921-2008

My grandfather died around midnight last night. He was 86.

John Edward Schultz was born on his parents’ farm near Galena, Illinois, on July 2, 1921. He was the middle son of five children. He grew up on various farms near Galena, Illinois, having many childhood adventures. He first met his future wife Coletta Weis when they were both in grade school, and the very first time he met her, he told his parents that he would marry that girl some day.

John Schultz and his parents and siblings

One day while doing chores on the farm, he saw a snake disappearing down a hole. In the manner of young boys everywhere, he wanted to catch the snake, so he quickly grabbed its tail before it escaped. He immediately realized his mistake when the snake’s tail rattle started shaking: it was a diamondback rattlesnake, deadly poisonous. With its head several feet down the hole, it couldn’t turn and bite him, but neither did Grandpa want to let it escape. Thinking quickly, he pulled it out of the hole...and immediately started swinging it around his head like a lasso so the centrifugal force would keep its head too far away to bite him. He threw it against the wall of the barn and then killed it with a shovel. It was over six feet long.

Grandma and Grandpa as teens during the Great Depression

As a young man, he began a lifelong interest in geology. Although war and family responsibilities would keep him from finishing college, he read widely on the subject. One day on a train to visit relatives in Iowa, he struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him, who said he was a geologist and expounded on a theory he recently came up with on the subject. Grandpa impressed him by having heard about this theory, and they discussed it at some length. The man turned out to be Alfred Wegener, and the theory they were talking about was his Tectonic theory of continental drift, which a couple of decades later became accepted as the basis for our current understanding of geophysics.

Grandma and Grandpa as young adults shortly before WW2

With war clouds gathering on the horizon and then raining all over Europe, he got a job around 1940 at the US Army’s Savannah Arsenal, assembling aerial bombs. He personally came up with several changes in procedures that greatly increased the efficiency of bomb production. These changes were so efffective that their value was recognized and they were adopted at other bomb factories, and they were thus able to make so many bombs that, even once Pearl Harbor was attacked and the US military greatly increased their orders for bombs, the bomb-making part of the Savannah Arsenal could be closed down (so the Arsenal could focus on making artillery shells) and the other plants (thanks to Grandpa's new procedures) could more than make up the slack. Given that we didn't beat the Axis in WW2 by being braver or smarter or luckier than they were (no one was smarter than the German generals, or braver than the Japanese troops, and luck was, as always, randomly distributed), we beat them by out-producing the heck out of them, by allowing the US to make more bombs more efficiently, Grandpa may have contributed a lot more to the war effort and our eventual victory than any of us previously realized.

After Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war, and his own efficiency improvements had ended up ironically eliminating his own job, he joined the US Army Air Forces to at least be able to pick his branch of service before being drafted (or killed at home working in a dangerous factory filled with several kilotons worth of artillery shells). Initially he was trained as a pilot, learning to fly on Stearman biplanes. However, he was soon reassigned as a gunner, and when he was sent to join a B-17 crew, he was found to be the only one in his particular crew short enough to reasonably comfortably fit inside the cramped ball turret on the belly of the plane, and he was thus placed in that most dangerous of positions.

He proved adept in gunnery training, becoming a master of the complicated range-finding gear. This was a set of lines in the gunsight that could be moved back and forth, with the idea that if you knew the wingspan of a plane and positioned the lines on each wingtip, you could read out the range to the target at which its apparent length would equal the distance between the lines on the gunsight. To practice with this gear, and pass the long boring hours on practice flights stuck in the ball turret, he figured out a way to use basic geometry and multiplication to use it to figure out their altitude based on the known size of some object on the ground (a building, the width of a road, etc.) or, conversely, figure out the size of something on the ground given their altitude. On one training flight, this saved his life.

They were on a routine training mission when a gigantic thunderstorm blocked their path. They first tried to fly over it, but it proved taller than their maximum altitude, so they began descending to a more reasonable height and tried to go around. As they descended, the Pilot told them when they got low enough to remove their oxygen masks (the B-17 was unpressurized due to the open windows on the side for the waist gunners). Grandpa happened to be doing his little altitude-finding trick with the rangefinder, and it looked like they were actually higher than the usual altitude at which it was safe to remove oxygen masks. He double-checked and then triple-checked his figures, not removing his own mask, before calling the pilot on the intercom to report his misgivings. There was no answer.

Laboriously extracting himself from the turret and hooking a portable oxygen bottle to his belt, he saw that the waist gunners were both passed out. Uh oh. He crawled through the tunnel over the bomb bay and up to the cockpit, where the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and radio operator were all also passed out. He also saw that the unguided aircraft was headed straight for the center of the thunderhead. He put their oxygen masks on them and turned up the gas, reviving the pilot and co-pilot. He also started turning the plane away from the thunderstorm and descending to a lower altitude. His actions saved his plane and his crew and he was promoted for his efforts.

He and his plane were assigned to the 388th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and ordered to join the US Eighth Army Air Force at Knettishall Airbase in England. This is the same unit that conducted the trials for the US equivalent of the German “Project Mistletoe” using remote-controlled unmanned bombers as guided missiles to destroy heavily defended targets. Joe Kennedy Jr., elder brother of JFK and RFK, was killed on a training mission while attached to this unit. They were initially supposed to fly over via Iceland and were issued cold-weather clothing, so of course they ended up being sent via Brazil and North Africa instead. Some other poor unfortunates initially ordered across via North Africa apparently got sent via Iceland with nothing but light summer-weight uniforms instead. While in North Africa, he was briefly kidnapped by a group of deserters who were using forged papers to requisition rations, jeeps, weapons, and various other military gear for sale on the black market. He managed to escape and rejoin his unit.

The 388th Bomb Group Memorial in Market Weston, England

In England, he was at another airbase one Sunday morning for last-minute gunnery training. Trying to find a Catholic church to attend mass in mostly-Protestant England was a difficulty, but he got some directions and headed out on a bicycle. It was a very foggy morning, and he soon got lost. Emerging from the fog at a crossroads, he noticed a well-dressed family out for a stroll, and rode over to ask for directions.

“Where the Hell am I,” Grandpa asked. “You’re not in Hell, you’re in England,” came the good-natured response. Grandpa chuckled, and asked for directions to the nearest Catholic church. He was told where one was, but told he probably wouldn’t make it in time for mass. He thanked them and said he’d try to make it anyways, but first asked their names. The father of the family was rather taken aback at not being recognized, but one of his two daughters told him “it must be one of our American cousins”.

The father drew himself up to his full height and said with much dignity, ”I am George of England.”

Gee, they sure talk funny here, Grandpa thought to himself, still not recognizing the King of England, his wife, and their two daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. Well, when in Rome, as they say. “Well, in that case, I’m John of the USA”. This got a huge laugh from the family, and they invited him to share a picnic lunch with them. He declined, saying it was very tempting offer, “Especially considering your two lovely daughters”, (which got another laugh from the daughters and father but a rather nervous one from the mother), but he’d still rather try and make it to mass. The father accepted this, but told him that if he was ever in London, to go to a certain address and ask for him at the door and say “John of the USA” was here to see him. Grandpa thanked him for the offer and headed out on what turned out to be an ultimately fruitless quest for a church. However, as he rode off, he was accosted and questioned by a rather irate British soldier, who informed my stunned grandfather that the nice family he’d met was in fact the Royal Family.

A couple of weeks later, he did finally get leave in London, and went to the address he had been given, which of course turned out to be Buckingham Palace. The first door guard he talked to tried to brush him off, but eventually a superior officer was found who had actually been told to expect someone calling themselves “John of the USA”, who regretfully informed him that the King was in a meeting all day and could not be disturbed. Grandpa later figured out that this was the meeting that set the date for the Normandy Invasion.

Still in London, Grandpa and a couple of his mates went to visit the Tower of London. There, another guard saw their uniforms and asked if they were with the US Army. Of course they were, they replied. “Well then, your meeting is through that door,” they were informed. Puzzled, they went through, and found themselves mistakenly admitted to a reception for official War Correspondents. Not ones to pass up free food, they hobnobbed for a while with the likes of Walter Cronkite, Ernie Pyle, Walter Winchell, and so forth, all of whom were ecstatic to finally get a chance at an unsupervised and uncensored talk with actual US service personnel. Later that day, in the subway, Grandpa rescued an English girl from an attack and possible attempted rape by a group of drunk US soldiers, and the grateful girl offered to take him on a tour of her home town. He accepted, and when she asked him to “knock her up sometime if he was ever in town again”, he was briefly flustered by that particular bit of British slang meaning nothing more carnal than “call on me at my home address”.

Upon returning to his airbase the next day, he found on the notice board a message left for “John of the USA” from “George of England” stating that he was sorry they missed each other in London. Apparently a bunch of his fellow airmen who weren’t familiar with the story had already called the number on the message, mistakenly thinking it was some sort of covert advertisement from a brothel.

An older Grandpa showing a B-17 Ball Turret to my cousin Aaron at an airshow

A couple of weeks later, he went on one of his first combat missions: being in the first wave of allied aircraft to cross the channel and bomb German positions behind the beaches on the morning of D-Day. His bomber was hit and lightly damaged and forced to return alone rather than with the rest of the formation. Grandpa was thus one of the few aircrew to pass directly over the beaches (supposed to be kept clear to avoid friendly-fire incidents with trigger-happy AA gunners) and they flew directly over the vast invasion armada, nervously waggling their wings to show off the USAAF insignia and “invasion stripes” on the wings to cut down on the number of shots fired at them. In his ball turret under the plane, he had an awesome view of the 6000+ ships below him filling the sea from horizon to horizon, the biggest armada in human history.

They went on many more missions over occupied Europe in the months following the invasion. Remember the movie “Memphis Belle” and the big hubbub over the first US bomber crew to complete 25 missions and be sent home? Well, Grandpa did 33 missions, because by this time heavy losses had forced the USAAF to increase the number of missions before you could be sent home. Some of these missions were to drop supplies to the French Resistance behind German lines. The rest were mostly against industrial targets in cities like Hamburg, Schweinfurt, Berlin, Munich, and Kiel.

One particular mission went down in the history books as one of the great blunders of all time. It was “Operation Frantic II”, in which bombers would take off from England, bomb targets in Eastern Germany, then land in Soviet-controlled territory at Poltava in the Ukraine. It was originally randomly assigned the name “Operation Frantic Joe” until someone pointed out this might be interpreted as a dig at “Uncle Joe” Stalin. They planned to then operate for a few weeks from Soviet airfields against targets in occupied Poland, Austria, and other areas difficult to hit from England or Liberated Italy, before bombing Germany again en route back to England.

One of several books about this classic military blunder

However, their first night at Poltava, the Luftwaffe attacked the airbase with over 100 He-111 and Ju-88 bombers, destroying 58 of the 90 bombers on the ground and heavily damaging the rest. The aircrew were originally ordered to sleep in and under their planes to protect them from sabotage, but they decided at the last minute to accept Soviet hospitality in tents at a nearby village, a decision that probably saved many lives. The Russian air defense was almost nonexistent, consisting of three lend-lease P-39 fighters (flown by female pilots) and a handful of AA guns, also manned by all-female crews. Nevertheless, they did manage to shoot down at least one of the escorting German fighters, which crash-landed not far from Grandpa’s tent (which had been strafed, with 20mm bullets whipping past Grandpa’s head while he lay in his bunk). He and a Soviet army officer were first to reach the plane, where they found the pilot dead. The Soviet officer reached in and took the pilot’s helmet, goggles, jacket, and belt (which featured a huge swastika on the buckle) as a souvenir, and immediately put them on.

Then a rather angry young woman ran up in Soviet army uniform. She was the lone survivor of an AA gun crew that had been wiped out, apparently by this particular plane, on a strafing run a few minutes before. So when she runs up, the first thing she sees is a guy wearing Luftwaffe helmet, goggles, jacket, and with a huge swastika on his belt. While this guy was standing right next to my Grandpa, she ran up and emptied her submachine gun (with a drum magazine of 90 rounds) into the guy, pretty effectively shredding him. With his plane destroyed, Grandpa had to be flown out of Russia and back to England via Tehran and North Africa again.

Grandma and Grandpa's wedding photo

Back in England, he continued to fly missions until they finally said his tour of duty was over and sent him back to the US for training on B-29’s for possible future missions over Japan. While at a training base in South Dakota, he married his longtime sweetheart, Coletta Weis, and her wedding dress was made from the silk parachute he’d salvaged from the wreckage of his bomber on the field at Poltava. The war ended before he could be sent to bomb Japan, and he retired from the USAAF as a Staff Sergeant. He and his wife worked for a time as farm laborers until they saved up enough to buy their own farm at the end of Pilot Knob Road 3 miles south of Galena, Illinois, not far from the farms where they grew up.

Grandma with their four young children

They had four children: Margaret Ann Schultz, my mother; John Albert Schultz, my Uncle Jack; and my aunts Joyce Clara Schultz and Jean Coletta Schultz. They lived on that farm and raised their children, eventually handing the farm on to Uncle Jack and moving to the farm where Grandma's mother grew up a couple of miles away on Blackjack Road. That farm had been in the family since at least the mid-1800's, and still has barn that partially consists of a log cabin built on the site in about 1810. Grandpa was also active in local politics, serving on the Township Board and in the local Farm Bureau, and helping lead an unfortunately unsuccessful grass-roots campaign opposing the conversion of some local farmland into a garbage dump.

Grandma and Grandpa with their four adult children

He died last night around midnight, of heart and kidney failure brought on by a long series of diabetes-related infections in his legs dating back to when he had his knee replaced, a knee that never quite recovered from shrapnel wounds received from German flak over Europe in WW2.

Grandma and Grandpa with their seven grandchildren

He is survived by his wife, four children, and seven grandchildren. He will be sorely missed, but he certainly had a long and fulfilling life. My sister and I will both be serving as pallbearers at his funeral on Saturday morning.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Finally got published

Well, that article I wrote for Christian Faith and Reason Online finally got published. That's the good news. The bad news is that they have canceled their plans for a hardcopy version of their magazine in favor of an online-only format. The worse news is that they seem to be a real mickey-mouse operation, never having come out with the September issue at all, barely having any articles for the October issue they finally came out with, and whoever codes their homepage uses tags that don't work for us Firefox users. Anyways, my article did at least make their "front page", not that there's much that isn't on their front page. The article in question is a revised and greatly expanded version of the quickie rant that was included in my previous blog post.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Atheist Diversionary Tactics: My Response

I just saw linked on Fark an article on some Christian Apologist website by some guy named R.C. Metcalf called Atheist Diversionary Tactics. In it, he snidely dismisses the current crop of books on Atheism as focusing too much on the nastier laws of Leviticus, attacking Christianity while ignoring the far-more dangerous Islam, and ignoring the demographic threat of the fast-breeding browner-skinned peoples of the Earth. Then he brings up Iraq for no clear reason.

Apparently, the original website once had a comments feature, but some of my ruder Atheist brethren got so annoying they turned off public comments. They instead put in a tiny tiny comment field that only lets you reply with about a paragraph and promised to read all comments and invite some of the more lucid responders to reply at length with an article to be published later on their site. As anyone who reads this blog knows (probably about three people including me, as with most blogs), brevity is not my strong suit. I'll find some other way to send this to them, but for now, I'm putting this up here. What follows is my response to Dr. Metcalf.

Your Article does touch on one of my own problems with many books on Atheism by my fellow Atheists. They spend too much time skewering the nastier bits of the Bible and historical atrocities such as the crusades and Spanish Inquisition. As Christians and others often point out, the vast majority of believers rightly reject the burning of witches and the stoning of Sabbath-breakers; and self-proclaimed atheists such as Stalin and Mao have compiled their own impressive body counts. Such historical muckraking by Atheists does have a point, as it is the dangers posed by people who take their theology a bit too seriously and literally (whether that theology is theistic or Marxist) that often makes us such angry atheists. But it is not what makes us Atheists in the first place. We are not Atheists because Christians or Muslims are often nasty people. We are Atheists because we believe that gods and the afterlife do not exist.

However, most believers are not actually all that conversant with the niceties of theology or the details of the historical evidence (or lack thereof) for the miracles and other theologically significant happenings of the Bible and Koran. Darn few Christians know anything at all about the Koran or the scriptures of any other faith. Atheist books making more detailed cases against the theology of Christianity and other faiths exist, but just as science books written in layman’s terms sell better than books that are dense with data and equations, books on atheism with more simplistic arguments sell better than ones aimed at a more specialist readership. And books that sell well are more likely to be discussed in the blogosphere.

Also, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in particular rightly point out that all those nasty bits in Leviticus are indeed still in the Bible. All those nasty bits in Sharia are still in the Koran. So long as “moderate” religious people still give lip-service to the idea that the Bible or the Koran, according to their affiliation, are the inerrant Word of God (or at least the Word of God and a generally-good guide to how to live a moral life), believers who actually read those books will come across those nasty bits, and a disturbing number of them will take them seriously. Christians who actually try to live out the nastier bits of the Bible may be limited to Fred Phelps and the Dominionist movement, but so long as Christianity and the Bible are with us, we will always have their ilk around to remind us what formal Christian scriptures really do say. So long as Islam is with us, we will always have believers who try to take the Koran as literally as the Koran itself demands they take it, with bloody consequences for the rest of us. Moderate religious sects, while posing little immediate danger to Atheists or other religious groups, are the incubators and protectors of extreme religious sects that pose a great danger to everyone.

After that one marginally good point, you bring up a pair of bad points.

First off, you complain that recent Atheist books tend to mostly pick on Christianity. This is due to the fact that people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are writing in English for a Western Euro-American audience, an audience that is steeped in the Christian tradition. Other authors such as Aayan Hirsi Ali write with an Islamic audience in mind, and spend most of their time picking on Islam. Of the current crop of Atheist books, I confess that I have only read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, not the works of Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, or Ali. But at least in their speeches available on YouTube, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do spend a good amount of time picking on Islam, particularly picking on Islamic terrorism and theocratic governments. Again, they arguably fall into the trap of complaining about bad acts by Muslims rather than about the existence of Allah or the truth of the revelations of Mohammed, but as I previously stated, they’re aiming their books at a general audience, not specialists.

Secondly, you harp on for several paragraphs about the demographic decline of Western nations and the population boom in the Islamic world. Such complaints by the likes of Pat Buchanan always make me distinctly uncomfortable, for they smell strongly of racism. At first, I thought it ironic that you were using what amounts to a Darwinian argument to oppose noted Darwinian Richard Dawkins and his ideological allies: “Religious people are reproducing more and threaten to outnumber Atheists, therefore Religious people are more fit in a Darwinian sense”. But I can’t recall a single instance in my experience of a prominent Atheist bemoaning the fact that we were being outbred by rival faiths. Perhaps they have but I don’t remember it, or perhaps Atheists aren’t quite so racist.

The west is in demographic decline not due to Atheism, but due to wealth, industrialization, and development. In a modern technological society, it makes Darwinian sense to have few children, but heavily invest in the education and well-being of each one. With their basic survival all but assured by modern healthcare, abundant food, and so forth, those investments are not likely to go to waste, and the children will be well-equipped to become wealthy themselves and attract high-quality mates. In a less technologically advanced society such as most of the Third World (or poorer areas of the First World, such as Muslim banlieues in France or black ghettoes in America), where basic survival is less assured, it makes more sense for parents to invest in quantity of children rather than quality. Many affluent religious groups in technologically-advanced societies such as the United States are also seeing a declining birthrate compared to previous levels.

Finally, you bring up the Iraq war for no clear reason. Like “New Atheist” author Christopher Hitchens, I personally support the War On Terror in general and the campaign in Iraq in particular. I have my own personal problems with some of the tactics and strategies chosen by our present political-military leadership in these struggles, but I agree that their aims are noble ones and I fervently hope for victory. My problems with their tactics and strategies are generally a complaint that we’re not doing enough, sending enough troops, or spending enough on reconstruction and propaganda (including raising the standard of living for ordinary Iraqis), to ensure victory in a reasonable timeframe. I bemoan the fact that many of my fellow atheists, apparently motivated by dislike for the overtly-religious rhetoric of President Bush in particular (and, for some of my European friends, for the too-heavily-religious United States in general), have an annoying knee-jerk reaction against the Iraq War and pretty much anything else that Bush and/or the United States have done in recent years.

In conclusion, while I agree in large part with at least one of your points, I think you misunderstand the current Atheist mindset. You also misunderstand your own fellow believers. I will always be fascinated by the gulf between the formal scriptures and doctrines of religious faiths on the one hand, and the actual beliefs of most ordinary believers on the other. Usually at least one of the two sets of beliefs is outright insane. And, just as you will rarely find two Democrats or two Republicans who are in complete agreement on all political issues, you will rarely find two Christians, two Muslims, or even two Atheists who are in complete agreement on all religious issues. And when you do, only one of them is actually thinking anything more profound than “I agree with him.”


Friday, January 26, 2007

Proof of the non-existence of God

I recently read a very good book, called The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. The book argues that Atheism is the only possible religious opinion of people with knowledge of science, a sense of intellectual honesty, and good morality. While it made several good points, I was a bit dissapointed that it didn't really touch upon my personal favorite argument against the existence of God. So I am writing out that argument below. Enjoy.

One of the basic assumptions of science is that miracles do not happen. That is, it is not allowable in a scientific hypothesis to posit a supernatural or magical cause for any effect. This is a very necessary first principle, because if it did not exist, it would be impossible to do science at all. Scientists could never be sure if an observed phenomenon, or an experimental result, is the consequence of blind laws of nature working themselves out, or the by-product of the conscious intent of some supernatural entity who is just screwing with us. Anomalous observations, fossils, and experimental results that might otherwise spark interesting theories and new hypothesis could too easily be explained away as a miracle. It would be impossible to EVER know if we had a true theory of the laws that nature itself obeys, or if we had been misled by miraculous events into a false picture of how the world works when whatever supernatural force caused those miracles chooses to not cause similar ones.

This does not necessarily mean that science assumes there is no God. Rather, science assumes that God does not normally intervene in the world by means of miracles, and if God ever does, it will be so blindingly obvious that no one could possibly think it was a natural event. Science assumes that God, if he exists, does not in any significant manner break the laws of physics, or allow them to be broken.

However, while this does not rule out God entirely, it does place some limits on the sort of God which can be considered to be consistent with science. A God who is constantly answering prayers and working miracles, such as curing diseases or helping Brett Favre win football games, is not compatible with science. A God who, in essence, lit the fuse of the Big Bang and then stood back and just watched things happen, can be considered to be at least somewhat compatible with science, at least until such time as we figure out what happened before the Big Bang, or come up with a more coherent theory of what natural processes may have caused the Big Bang to happen without supernatural assistance.

Such a God may be compatible with certain interpretations of mainstream religions, such as the Unitarian Universalist movement within Christianity. But it is not compatible with young-earth Creationist strains of Biblical Literalists, or even most so-called mainstream faiths who still believe in most of the miracles of the Bible and that God answers prayers even occasionally.

But there is one area of science that, I believe, has put the final nail in the coffin of even the least fundamentalist strains of mainstream Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith. And that area is neuroscience.

Neuroscientists do not yet fully understand the brain, but they are coming excitingly close in recent years. We now know enough about how the brain works to make reasonably certain guesses about what sort of theories and discoveries are capable of filling in the few remaining blanks, and what sort of theories and discoveries are exceedingly unlikely to come along, because for them to be true, pretty much everything else we think we know about the brain would have to be monumentally false.

Let me explain what I mean by means of an example from a more widely-understood area of science. We know with a high degree of certainty that the Earth is round and that it orbits the sun. Oh, of course, the Earth is not perfectly round, because the centrifugal force of its rotation causes it to bulge slightly at the equator and to be slightly flattened at the poles, but basically, it’s round. We know this because we have circumnavigated the Earth in an east-west direction by ship along several routes at varying latitudes, sent subs across the north pole under the ice, and sent aircraft around at a multitude of angles. We have also sent spacecraft to orbit the planet at high altitude in several directions, as well as sent spacecraft to the moon and other planets, even out of the solar system itself, and they have taken pictures that clearly show it to be a sphere (again, with some slight deviations due to centrifugal force). Many of those same spacecraft have looked back at the earth while en route to other planets, and we have seen the earth as it orbits the sun. Seismologists have also used their instruments to follow the vibrations of earthquakes as they pass through the center of a round earth to shake seismograph needles on the opposite side of the world.

Now, it’s just barely possible that all these observations and experiments are wrong, that our pictures have fooled us due to some bizarre form of optical illusion, that some strange non-spherical topology or error in navigation has fooled our planes and ships and subs into thinking they have circumnavigated a spheoid earth when they have really followed some crooked path on a flat earth, or an earth of some other fantastical shape. But so much else would have to be wrong with so many other areas of science, areas such as geometry, geology, optics, astronomy, navigation, and possibly even basic mathematics, that we can say with a colossally high degree of certainty that there is effectively no chance that we are significantly wrong about the shape of the Earth, or its status as one planet among several that orbits the sun. Oh, we may refine our figures for its exact circumference and shape to a few more significant digits, but for any really major changes to these established facts, pretty much everything we know about science would have to be so monumentally wrong, that it would be mind-bogglingly bizarre that any of our technology and devices that depend on those subsets of science actually work at all.

In a similar way, we are reasonably certain that the brain works by means of neural impulses and neurotransmitter chemicals, and that everything that goes on in brains is the result of definable physical processes. Every emotion, sensation, memory, and thought process is traceable to a physical process inside the brain, to neural pathways of neurons firing in sequence, to chemical neurotransmitters activating receptor sites and causing more neural pathways to fire. These physical processes involve matter and energy, in the form of chemicals, chemical receptor sites on cells, osmotic barriers, and even flows of electrons very much like electricity in wires.

At death, all these physical processes stop. That’s what death is. If our memories are physical processes in our brains, how can our memories survive death and the cessation of those processes? How can we experience emotions if the neurons responsible for those emotions are dead? How can we experience the passage of time without a brain?

Consider a computer, such as a laptop or desktop. It has various software and data in its memory. Now take that computer and run it through a chipper-shredder. Grind up the resulting fragments until they are a fine powder. Burn that powder and grind up the ashes further. Now take the ashes up in the Space Shuttle, and sprinkle them out the window so they fall into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up one more time on re-entry. This will pretty effectively reduce them to their component atoms. The atoms and such molecules as remain will drift down through the atmosphere, with the more solid ones falling to ground as the dust particles at the center of raindrops or snowflakes. Wait a couple of centuries. Some of the copper molecules from the wiring inside that computer will now be included in hemocyanin molecules in the blood of lobsters off the coast of Maine. Some of the carbon molecules from the plastic casing of the computer will be part of cellulose molecules in a tree in the Amazon rain forest. And so on for the other atoms that once were a computer. Now try to run the software on that computer, or retrieve the data. This is a laughably impossible proposition, of course.

The same is true for human beings. Take a dead human and cremate them and scatter the ashes. Or bury them and let worms and insects and bacteria decompose them. The result will be the same: their component atoms and molecules will be returned to the biosphere and recycled, and all trace of their former status as part of a human being will be lost forever. It is precisely as ludicrous to think that the memories in that dead human brain, or the emotions it felt, can be somehow recovered or reconstituted, as it is to try and play Minesweeper or recover a text document on a computer that has been shredded, burnt, and ground into dust.

Of course, with computers, you can copy and share your data and software to other computers, and they can be preserved. Can this be done with humans? Not with current technology, of course, but someday, maybe we will be able to download memories from one person to another, or allow others to experience our emotions as we do.

But try another thought experiment. Say that some bright scientist creates a process to clone a person, force the clone to grow to adulthood quickly, and then download an exact copy of the original person’s current mental state into that clone. The clone would look exactly like the original person; have all their same memories, the same emotional attachments, the same personality, the same foibles and character flaws. Would it be that person?

First, assume that the process of reading the brain of the original person is a destructive one, and the brain has to be diced or otherwise destroyed, killing the original donor. This might still be an attractive process for some people, especially if the new clone could be stopped in aging at a youthful appearance, yet have downloaded into it the mind and memories of an elderly person. But imagine if the process was as simple as getting a CAT scan, a non-destructive process leaving the original person undamaged and unchanged.

Would they be the same person? Of course not. After the procedure, they could go their separate ways and have entirely different experiences from that time on. They may be identical people at the moment the process is completed, but they are not the SAME person. Thus regardless of whether this identical clone is created while one is still alive, or their brain pattern is stored and a new clone created hundreds of years after their death, the clone is not the original person, merely a copy.

All of this has fatal consequences for the idea of life after death. An awful lot of doctrines and dogmas and traditions can be cut out of most religions, and still leave behind something recognizable as the original religion. The various Christian denominations, the subflavors of Islam and Judaism, the various Buddhist sects and traditions, all can be considered as groups who cut out part of each others’ beliefs, or insert new ones, to create new faiths still broadly recognizable as part of the larger tradition; Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so forth. But I can think of no religion that does not have some form of belief in some form of life after death. Heaven, Hell, Sheol, Paradise, reincarnation, Nirvana, even continued existence here on Earth as some form of ghost or spirit, every religion believes that there is something essential about a person that survives their death, and still has some trace of that person’s identity, self-awareness, personality, and usually their memories as well. No religion I know of can survive having the concept of an afterlife removed from its doctrine and dogma, and still be recognizably considered as being the same religion.

If all of our emotions, memories, sensations, and thought processes are, in a fundamental sense, physical processes inside our brains, physical processes involving matter and energy, physical processes that cease at death, then there is zero possibility of life after death. Dead people cannot remember anything, since they have no neural pathways to store those memories, the neurons that made up those memory pathways are dead. Dead people cannot see, feel, smell, taste, or hear, since both the sense organs and the neurons that processed that information are all dead and gone. Dead people cannot experience any emotions, have any thoughts, experience the passage of time. They cannot love, they cannot hate, they cannot feel pleasure or pain. All the brain cells that handle such processes are dead, decayed to dust or cremated and blown away by the wind.

Some religious people claim that this doesn’t matter, that God will provide them with a new body and a new mind in heaven, perhaps one made entirely of “Spirit” or energy of some kind, one that will not age or die again. They claim that God will effectively download a copy of your consciousness and memory as they are at your moment of death into this new heavenly body, whether this process is immediate or delayed by quite some time. But remember what we established with the thought experiment involving the cloned consciousness above: that will not be the same person, merely an identical copy.

Even if there was a God capable of doing this, it would raise a shocking moral question. Go back to that cloned consciousness thought experiment. What if the person being cloned was a convicted criminal? Would it be moral to lock up the clone for the donor’s crimes? Or if the donor was a celebrity or hero of some type, would it be justifiable to give the clone the same honors and awards due to the donor? Not only would a supernaturally-reconstituted copy of a dead person’s body and mind not be the same person, but it would be a horrific miscarriage of justice to punish that copy for the failings of the dead person, to roast the copy in hell forever, or whatever your religion of choice has in store for bad people, just because the dead person that copy is a copy of did something considered evil.

Some religious people have a different objection to the above line of reasoning. They hold the belief that, yes, the body dies and is not resurrected, but that some separate entity, a spirit or soul, does survive after death, and it is this spirit or soul that carries on into the afterlife without alteration or cessation of existence, perhaps being inserted into a new heavenly body or reincarnated in a new earthly one, perhaps not, but having the necessary quality of continuous existence to get around the moral and scientific problems introduced by my above line of reasoning.

But this brings up new problems. Mainly, how does this soul interact with the physical body? In order to do the things that religious people want souls to do, they have to both be influenced by, and influence, the physical body itself. For example, a soul has to be able to “read” the neural impulses in the brain, to be able to experience the world. Souls cannot themselves “see”, or else there would be no blind people. Souls cannot “hear”, or there would be no deaf people, and so forth. It might be somewhat possible to posit a soul that can read the state of a physical brain and experience what that brain experiences, without too many problems with violating physical laws, although the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle may cause some problems. Nevertheless, let’s agree that this question is at best (or worst) an unresolved one given the current state of scientific knowledge, and move on to the other half of this problem.

How can the soul influence the body? In order for a soul to, for example, order a person to “say something”, it would have to cause a series of neural impulses to be generated that would not otherwise be generated. It would have to somehow cause electrons to flow, or cause chemicals to be released, perhaps even create chemicals and release them into the brain. Regardless of the exact mechanism, it has to influence ordinary matter in some form, either moving it, or creating it. This would require a soul to have a physical presence, that is, to include some matter, or equivalently, to possess or have some sort of energy in the ordinary scientific sense, rather than in the mystical “life energy” sense.

Now, it is just barely possible that some sort of “life energy” exists, and is energy in the same sense that electromagnetic energy is energy. After all, two of the four fundamental forces known to science were only discovered and understood in the 20th century, and gravity is still incompletely understood at best. The so-called “Dark Energy” that features in some recent cosmological theories may be a fifth fundamental force, but that is not yet clear. So there may be a sixth. But a physical form of energy, even one as-yet unknown to science, is not what religious people mean when they talk about souls. I doubt religious people think souls have a quantum-mechanics carrier particle like photons for electromagnetism, or gluons for the strong nuclear force.

If it doesn’t, then there is no scientific way that a soul can interact with matter, as any such interaction would violate several very fundamental laws of physics. The laws that would be violated are so fundamental, so well-established, so basic, that for them to be overturned by some new theory of “soul physics” would be far more surprising than some new theory of geotopology demonstrating that the Earth is not round and doesn’t orbit the sun. EVERYTHING we know about Physics would have to be wrong on such a fundamental level that I cannot conceive of any way that any of our technological wonders that rely on these laws being true could possibly continue to function. Everything we know about neurology and biology and medicine would have to be equally wrong, and the mere fact that any of our medical treatments work would be a coincidence of a monumental scale.

Life after death is an impossibly ridiculous concept. Whether we’re talking about reincarnation, drifting about as ghosts, or eternal bliss in heaven and eternal torment in hell, everything we know about physics, biology, and neuroscience says that life after death is a categorical impossibility.

If there is no life after death, all the major religions I know about have to be wrong on a very fundamental level, because all of them have some concept of an afterlife so deeply embedded in their doctrine that it cannot be excised without altering the overall fabric of that religion beyond all sense of recognition. If these religions are wrong on that fundamental a level, then the various deities they worship do not exist, at least not in the form that those religions hold dear. Allah, Jehovah, Brahma, and Yahweh do not exist, at least not in the forms recognized by Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism, respectively. There can be no reincarnation, so the various eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto are similarly incorrect on a very fundamental level. And there can be no ghosts or disembodied spirits, so even most tribal animism and new-age cults are clearly wrong.

There is still some dim prospect of a vague Deist God existing, but a God who created the universe and then never interfered in it again, not even to the extent of looking after the souls of the departed, cannot answer prayers. Such a God is hardly worthy of the sort of intense worship and praise heaped upon the deities of the various mainstream religions, probably wouldn’t care if we did, and definitely wouldn’t do anything to reward those who did or punish those who didn’t. A “personal relationship” with such a Deity, of the sort that born-again Christians claim they have with Jesus, is a laughable concept. And if and when scientists come up with a theory that convincingly explains how and why the Big Bang happened, even that dim possibility of a Deist god will disappear.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Evolutionary Psychology and Racism

The mental process that led to my thinking about the Placebo Effect and its evolutionary origins stemmed in part from some thinking I have been doing about the origins of racism and genocide. After all, what could be the evolutionary benefit to a species that regularly killed itself off in large numbers via genocide, or which oppressed and impoverished large numbers of its own members?

Evolutionary scientists studying how new species are created talk a lot about the environmental mechanisms that can isolate a breeding population. New mountain ranges, new rivers, new islands are all ways that one group of individuals in a species can be isolated from the rest of their species. Then new mutations arising in that isolated group can build up as the group adapts to a slightly different environment from that which is faced by the remainder of the original species. As time goes by, those mutations can build up to the point that, if the two groups are once more brought together, they may no longer be capable of interbreeding.

As modern humans spread out over the world from africa tens of thousands of years ago, the difficulties of long-distance travel in a pre-technological world led to enough isolation that some adaptations to different environments could arise and not spread beyond those localized environments. For example, the dark melanin-rich skins of humans who stayed in Africa are an adaptation to reduce the amount of sunburn and skin cancer in people who spend a lot of time out in the tropical sun in an environment too hot for heavy clothing. The pale melanin-poor skins of humans who moved to Scandinavia are an adaptation to have more efficient production of Vitamin D in the skin using sunlight in an environment with less sunlight, and in which the climate was cold enough that most skin was usually covered up with clothing. When there's less risk of sunburn and skin cancer, it's more important to be able to make Vitamin D even with very little skin exposed to sunlight. When there's more risk of sunburn and skin cancer, and most skin is usually exposed, it's more important to avoid skin cancer and even an inefficient Vitamin D production system can still produce more than enough for survival.

However, this distance-based isolation was never quite complete enough, and didn't last long enough, for the various human sub-groups to become incapable of interbreeding. Each local sub-group did enough interbreeding with their immediate neighbors for there to be a rough continuity all the way from Siberia and Scandinavia down to the southern tip of Africa, and thus a fairly smooth progression of, for example, skin tones from dark Africans through medium-toned Mideastern, Mediterranean, and Indian peoples, to pale Scandinavians and yellow-skinned Siberians. Even with the relatively isolated inhabitants of the Americas, there was some contact between the Eskimos/Inuits of Alaska and the similar aboriginal cultures of Siberia, enabling some interbreeding between the old and new worlds even before Columbus. So the human "races" are not separate species, just localized variations in the frequencies of certain genes within a larger common genome.

But distance and geographical barriers are not the only ways to reproductively isolate a population. In the animal world, behavioral adaptations like different mating seasons, mating calls, and other mate-selection mechanisms can serve to isolate emerging sub-species from conducting much interbreeding even before mutations build up to the point that interbreeding is physically impossible. And within the human species, behavioral and cultural barriers to interbreeding between racial and ethnic groups did arise.

Early humans, as I mentioned before, tended to live in small bands of individuals who were mostly related by blood. When the groups were small enough, they may have literally been a single extended family of at least distant cousins. But even larger tribes tended to have semi-mythological common ancestors. The Book of Genesis is, in large part, a chronicle of the mythological common ancestors of the Israelite people and their neighboring tribes.

The best-known such tale is probably that of Issac and Ishmael. The Israelites claimed descent from Abraham through his son Issac, which he had with his wife Sarah. The Arabs claim descent from him through his first-born son Ishmael, which he had through his wife Sarah's handmade Haggiah. Although the story as laid out in the Bible probably didn't actually happen quite that way in reality, two important concepts are on display here. The first is that, rightly or wrongly, ancient peoples often claimed descent from a common ancestor as a way of saying, "we in this tribe are really all one big family". The second is that, to justify later political differences between tribes, they would often concoct common-ancestor myths about their neighbors to explain just why an enemy tribe are quite literally bastards.

Another well-known Biblical common-ancestor myth is the story of Lot and his daughters. After the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah and the death of his wife, Lot took his two daughters and went to live in a cave above the Dead Sea. With no nearby tribemates to marry, and no lands or property to serve as a dowry, the daughters despaired of ever finding husbands. Desperate for sons to carry on their lineage, the daughters got their father drunk and had sex with him while in this inebriated state. They became pregnant and had sons. The Bible goes on to list those sons as the founding common-ancestors of two neighboring tribes, the Moabites and Amalekites, whom the Israelites were in a near-perpetual state of war with centuries later when this story was actually written down. To justify later wars with culturally-similar peoples, the Israelites thus concocted a founding-ancestor myth to call their enemies bastard products of an incestuous relationship, a rather effective form of propaganda.

So ancient peoples very consciously thought of themselves as genetically-related extended family groups. This thinking persisted through the centuries, even as tribes became nations and the population of such groups grew too large to realistically be considered single extended families.

When two such groups lived in close proximity but did not interbreed much due to cultural or traditional barriers, racism and genocide became likely. This is because of another consequence of the sort of evolutionary instincts I mentioned in the previous post about Placebo Effect, the sort of instincts best exemplified by a mother cat defending her kittens.

In evolutionary terms, it is the genes that matter, not the individuals. A parent will fight and die to protect their offspring, like that iconic mother cat and her kittens. Siblings will fight and die to defend each other, like ants or bees fighting to defend the hive. And friends will fight and die to protect each other, because your friends are potential relatives. If I die to defend you today, and your son marries my daughter later, someday you may go on to defend your grandchildren who are also MY grandchildren, and thus by defending you, I'm defending my own offspring.

Within the same breeding pool, individuals may compete in a fairly vicious manner for access to mates and resources. But every rival is also a potential ally. I don't mind so much if you get rich if I think someday my grandkids might marry your grandkids and thus stand a chance to inherit your fortune. If our two sons are likely to become business partners, your wealth and resources may also benefit my offspring.

But if two separate breeding pools of humans exist in close proximity without significant interbreeding, the instincts which lead us to help and defend our relatives and potential relatives turn ugly. If two individuals do not share a common ancestor and thus have different genes, and furthermore they are unlikely to ever share common descendants, then what benefits one bloodline will never benefit the other.

For one example, look at pre-Revolutionary France. The nobllity of the 1700's very consciously considered themselves descdended from a narrow group of common ancestors in the medieval nobility. The commoners could not claim descent from the same group of common ancestors. The nobility and commoners rarely intermarried or interbred. Oh, a nobleman may have bastard children by a common mistress, but the offspring either are shunned and remain commoners, or are acknowledged and enter the nobility (and likely subsequently abandon their commoner relatives out of embarassment over their origins). Thus, such offspring effectively simply switch allegiance rather than forming a bridge between the two groups. Nobles drew their wealth from owning land, while commoners got wages for labor, and so the two groups effectively worked in different industries, and so being business partners was rare. When the nobility got richer, the commoners could not comfort themselves with the belief that someday their grandkids would marry into the nobility and inherit that wealth. When commoners grew wealthy, they became rivals for political power and may even try to marry into the nobility, thus competing for mating partners. What benefited one group would not benefit the other. And so when things came to a head in 1789 and after, the nobility was sent to the guillotine or chased out of the country, their assets seized by force. Effectively, it was genocide and ethnic cleansing of one breeding population upon another.

For a second example, take Christians and Jews in pre-WW2 Germany. Religion, Culture, and Tradition together conspired to make interbreeding between the two groups rare. When intermarriage did occur, one or the other spouse usually converted, and thus effectively switched allegiance instead of becoming a bridge between the two groups. Traditions based on previous legal barriers to Jews or Christians working in certain industries also made business partnerships rare: Jews were bankers and jewelers and had once been banned from owning land or working in certain occupations. Christians had once been banned from lending money at interest. So if Jews got rich as economic conditions changed, Christians were unlikely to marry into the Jewish community and stand a chance at inheriting this wealth. When Christians got rich, Jews were unlikely to marry into that community and inherit their wealth. The two groups became rivals for political power and economic resources. And so when things came to a head, either in medieval pogroms or in the Holocaust of the 1940's, the result was genocide.

For a final example, look at blacks and whites in pre-Civil Rights-era America. Legal barriers and tradition made intermarriage rare. Slavery and Jim Crow laws ensured that blacks and whites did not become business partners. And when interbreeding did occur, the "one drop of blood" tradition ensured that the offspring were considered black, not both black and white, and thus could not form a true bridge between groups. What benefitted one group did not benefit the other. And so when competition came to a head, the result was oppression, slavery, race riots, and other similar problems.

Racism and genocide are the result of a twisting of the ancient evolutionary instincts to protect and defend your relatives and potential relatives, and to bloodily compete with rivals that cannot and never will become allies or relatives. The propaganda of racist groups like the KKK is full of references to blood and ancestors, and fear of miscegenation leading to one group being out-bred by the other and their genes disappearing. Whether we're talking of medieval noblemen refusing to let their blood be "tainted" by intermarriage with mere commoners, or modern racists worried about the fact that "only a white woman can have white children", or Pat Buchanan wringing his hands over higher birthrates among immigrants, racist groups use language that shows that what they really fear is their genes disappearing from the gene pool. They are worried about evolutionary processes.

Thus the real solution to racism is to dissolve the barriers between races. More intermarriage, more interbreeding, more business partnerships between individuals from disparate groups are what will kill racism and end genocide. What doesn't help are things like affirmative action, racial set-asides in government purchasing, and rhetoric like Malcolm X's infamous statement that "before we can have black-white unity, we need black unity". Black Pride and White Pride are both counter-productive as far as the goal of ending racism is concerned. What do work are programs like the integration of the armed forces, striking down laws against miscegenation, and encouraging intermarriage and business partnerships.

Anything that emphasizes the differences and encourages separate traditions between racial and ethnic groups is counter-productive. We don't need separate Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hannukkah holidays. We need to strip Christmas of its purely Christian connotations and make it a pan-cultural holiday celebrated by all groups. We don't need to encourage more "black-owned businesses" with government set-aside contracts, we need to encourage existing companies to accept minorities into their management, and encourage blacks and whites to go into partnership together to form companies that are neither black nor white. We need to encourage (so much as is possible) interbreeding between racial groups, and more importantly, we need to acknowledge that the children of such unions are members of both groups, not some separate "mixed-breed" grouping or shoehorning them into one group or the other.

And we need to emphasize our common cultural ancestors. Although these days he's seen as just one more dead white European male, Columbus was one of the original multicultural heroes. As an Italian, he was an alternative to English heroes in a young United States that had just broken away from Britain and was trying to redefine itself as something other than an exclusively Anglo-Saxon nation. When we speak of Western Civilization, we are claiming cultural descent from Greece and Rome, even if our actual genetic ancestors are from Scandinavia or Iberia or the Slavic lands. We need to emphasize cultural ancestors like the ancient Greeks, because it makes an excellent substitute for the mythological common ancestors of the Biblical age, and can be used to turn those vicious evolutionary instincts away from genocide and towards including a wider spectrum of people in our mental map of our tribe, our relatives and potential relatives. Just as anyone can come to the United States and become an American citizen regardless of their racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural background, anyone can adopt Western ways and become just as much an heir of Socrates and Cicero and Petrarch as someone who grew up steeped in the Western tradition.

And the West needs to broaden its concept of its cultural ancestry. We in the West are also the heirs of Saladin and Alhazen, of Confucius and Lao-Tzu, of Shaka and Ibn Battuta, of Montezuma and Atahualpa, not just the heirs of Columbus and Caesar and Custer. Western Civilization has the chance to become the first truly global civilization in every sense of the term. Immigrant societies like America and Australia and Canada and Argentina, and like many European nations are finally becoming, can claim cultural ancestors from every ancient tradition. And they should. The alternative is yet further rounds of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and strife.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

My Contribution to the Science of Evolutionary Psychology

I may have actually helped create a new scientific theory today.

A couple months ago, I was thinking to myself about alternative medicine, after seeing a news report about one of the latest fad treatment for people who think actual medicine is too grounded in reality for their tiny minds to handle. This led to thoughts about the placebo effect, which is the only thing that makes most alternative medicine work at all. This in turn led to thoughts about how the heck something like the placebo effect could be produced by evolutionary pressures.

The real mystery about the placebo effect isn't the fact that sometimes the mere belief that a treatment works can lead to the body's own immune system and other defenses to cure an illness or reduce its symptoms faster than they otherwise would. The real mystery is: why the heck doesn't the body beat off illnesses that fast all the time? What possible evolutionary benefit could there be to a mechanism that slows down healing unless someone in a white lab coat hands you a pill and says it will cure you?

I actually came up with an idea. I couldn't remember hearing of this particular explanatory theory before, but I read a lot of odd scientific material now and then, and my memory is notoriously wonky when it comes to remembering if a joke is original or plagarized, so I wasn't sure if I'd really come up with an original concept or not. So for the last couple of days, I've been poking around on Google looking for anything online on the subject. I found several articles, most of which require a subscription to view, but of the free articles I found, one in particular seemed to be the sort of material I was looking for.

The article was"Great Expectations: The Evolutionary Psychology of Faith-Healing and the Placebo Effect", by Nicholas Humphrey of the London School of Economics. Dr. Humphrey focused on the costs and benefits to the sick individual of ramping up the immune system and other biological defense mechanisms, based on the situation in which one finds oneself injured or ill. Some responses to illness, such as fevers, can in some cases be more damaging then the illness itself, at least in the short term. The immune system is very expensive to operate in terms of energy, calories, and scarce nutrients such as carotinoids. In times of scarce food or other immediate danger, one may not have time to be bedridden, and thus it is better to simply let an infection run its course for a while, saving scarce resources for possible greater threats later on. Conversely, if one is safe at home and being taken care of by others, one may feel secure and confident enough to devote one's full biological resources to recovery.

However, my theory holds that the important thing, from an evolutionary standpoint, is the survival of the genes, not the survival of the individuals. At the time this placebo response mechanism evolved, humans lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers without modern medicine. These small bands were probably mostly composed of closely related family members (or relatives and potential relatives as future breeding creates genetic in-laws).

If an individual becomes sick or injured, his friends and family will likely try to nurse him through his illness in hopes that he will soon recover and once more become a productive member of the tribe. However, if food and other resources are scarce, sick or injured individuals who are not expected to recover even with such help might be abandoned, euthanized, or expelled from the community. Think of lepers in Biblical times, or elderly Eskimos being set adrift on ice floes, or elderly Polynesians being consumed through ritual cannibalism. This is because, if someone with a tropical fever or a burst appendix is inevitably going to be bedridden for a week and than die, it is a waste of resources to keep feeding them when there is no hope of them ever recovering anyways.

Worse yet, if the sick person has a communicable disease like smallpox or ebola, the longer they are kept alive by food and herbal palliative treatments, the longer the period in which they might infect others and spread the disease. And of course the people most likely to contract such an illness are the tribe's healers or medicine men, who may then die and be unable to care for other sick individuals who may then recover.

So primitive societies, especially when food or other resources were scarce, often performed a sort of ghoulish triage. Those sick individuals who had illnesses or injuries which experience had shown to be temporary, those who were expected to eventually recover if given proper care, were given food and whatever medicine the local level of medical knowledge allowed. However, those who were not expected to recover were given care focused less on recovery and more on preparing their soul for the afterlife. Catholic Last Rites are an example of such practices that have survived to the modern day.

But back to evolution. If a sick individual in such circumstances was being given the primitive equivalent of Extreme Unction to prepare him to meet Mumbo Jumbo the God of the Jungle in the next life, he knew that he was doomed. In such circumstances, the optimum strategy, from the point of view of his genes, is to shut down the immune system and die as quickly as possible, thus minimizing the drain of tribal resources and shortening the period of contagiousness of whatever sickness was killing him...and thus minimizing the risk to his friends, family, and offspring. However, if he is being given food and herbal poultices and medicinal teas which experience has shown to be effective in curing his illness, the optimum strategy is to ramp up his immune system to fight off the illness or recover from the injury as quickly as possible, so he can get back to breeding and finding food for himself, his children, and his fellow tribe members.

This, I believe, is the evolutionary origin of the placebo effect. If we think we are gonna get better, and we are in a safe situation where we are being cared for by others, our bodies will try and get well as soon as possible with a full immune response. If we think we have no hope and those around us have given up as well, our immune system gives up the fight and lets us die before we become any more of a burden to those around us who quite likely share many of our genes. Thus, either way, our genes, including whatever genes code for this connection between the brain and the immune system, have the most chance of being passed on and surviving to spread throughout the population. The placebo effect is thus, in effect, much like the instincts which will lead a mother cat to fight to the death to defend her kittens.

That article I linked above included an email link to the author, and this morning I sent him an email detailing my theory. This afternoon, I recieved a response.

He liked my idea. He hadn't heard it before, and he's a researcher in this field. Good grief, I may have created a new theory in the science of evolutionary psychology!

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