Thursday, 8 March 2007

There's a Hole in my Ocean, Dear Darlin, Dear Darlin

I just can't stop writing. This week's list of articles just had too many provocatively juicy tid-bits. One of the articles mentioned a giant hole in the Earth's crust, under the ocean, in the middle of the Atlantic. When we say large hole, we mean 1000s of square kilometers.

This is heady stuff. This is huge. The crust is oceanic and continental crust, and the continental crust is thicker, and lighter, and so rides higher than the oceanic crust. The crust covers the entire planet, and covers over the mantle. When it doesn't, we get volcanoes. The volcanoes come from a hole opening up a few square feet in size.

We have no idea what's going on here. We're investigating now, but it's completely new. And this is wonderful. It is not only about my favorite area of science, the ocean- it's a testament to the best of science. We don't know a lot. We want to know more. Science is about discovery, and curiosity, and knowing more, and recognizing that we don't know everything- and hopefully never will.

At the moment we know very little about this gigantic gash. It's hard to know how it fits into current Plate Tectonic theory. There is an incredibly remote possibility that it doesn't fit with Plate Tectonics, and the theory would have to be substantially reformatted. Likely we'll have to figure out how it fits in, and this will lead to some significant advances in Plate Tectonics and our understanding of the Earth's crust. Either way, the scientific method is open to experiencing the new, and going where the evidence leads. It is in this that science has it's glory. For in science, something is true until it is proven false- and there always remains that possibility that even the greatest of our theories will one day be overturned.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

As hinted at, the last downloads from World Science were just too juicy not to post more than one response. So let us consider how finding that God is angry makes us angry- it causes us to sin.

I sent in an unposted letter to World Science, complaining about the nature of this study, and a number of errors. The study authors seemed to be rather uninformed of the Bible in their own right, thinking this passage was a parable (as if that genre was invented at that point in time) rather than part of the historical genre. They used what they claimed was an obscure passage, the end of Judges. It is horrific, for certain. But if you study the Bible at all, hardly obscure. They had students from BYU and secular Amsterdam read the passage, and half of each group read an addition saying God had sanctioned the violence. Half of each of those groups were also told that the passage was from the Bible, and the other half that it was a newly unearthed manuscript. Then they had them blast noise at another. Those that had religious background, thought the story came from the Bible, or thought God had encouraged the violence, all were more aggressive with the noisemaking.

Some of these results may be flawed because of the errors in the study, such as BYU students potentially being more aware of what the authors of the study think is an obscure passage, and therefore knowing the passage comes from the Bible even though they are told it was a new manuscript. It would be interesting were this study attempted among Christians, or Quakers for that matter, as the Mormons are arguably a religion that focuses less on grace and pacifism. Additionally, of course, LDS values the Book of Mormon much higher than the Bible- a book that is filled with a great deal of violence- the same as the Old Testament.

But for all these caveats, I think there are still some valuable lessons we can pull out here. You become that which you dwell on. It is possible to focus on the God of wrath, and on the Old Testament, at the expense of the New, and of Grace. We've all been in churches like that; the lucky ones have only visited. I'm not one of the lucky ones. And what I've noticed is that, those churches that focus on the Old Testament over the New, do have a greater propensity to aggressive interactions with adults, and corporal punishment towards children. Nothing scientific in this; just my experience.

But of course, the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. God is working the same way at all times, but in different cultures, and within the Schoolhouse of Faith, building humans up to a point where they can accept Christ, working in them to the extent that they can understand, in the way each culture can understand. So then, how do we explain this passage?

One wonders if the author of the study included the last line. After multiple genocides, ethnic cleansings, and rapes, it says, "In those days there is no king in Israel; each did that which is right in his own eyes." Text must always be read in context- cultural and that of the text itself. The authors of the text clearly don't condone what has happened, but blame it on the lack of a king. Read in the context of the book shortly following, Samuel, one comes to understand that they refuse to have God as their king. (While each book stands alone, I'm referring here to the Hebrew understanding of theology once the books are both part of cannon.) So when we read the passage, we come to understand that this is the state of humanity, when we are not lead by God.

It is often stated that violence on TV and in the movies will lead people to be more violent. I agree with that, but this study might suggest something different. That violence in the movies is only going to be most prescriptive if we treat what is happening there as coming from an authority. Now it may well be that many see Arnold Schwarzenegger as an authority (even outside the State of California). But it is possible that shows like 24 and Alias aren't near as harmful as the Left Behind series, for such a film combines violence with God, the ultimate authority figure, and posits that He is behind some of this violence. (Indeed, there is a large wing of the Church that believes that God will bring on the End Times with violence, and even a segment of that wing that believes that Christians should hasten that coming with violence of their own. And thus we have blind American support for Israel.) When God is behind the violence, we begin to believe that we can be behind it to.

This study suggests also that there is a larger problem than that of the movies. Even when we are reading a text, if it is an authority that is coming out and advocating violence, or if we see that as such, we tend to turn to violence. Thus it becomes incumbent on us to teach Truth from the pulpit. This passage, as awful it is, and surely it is the most awful in the Bible, needs to be taught, and from the pulpit. For if people were understanding the true message of the passage, they would not be lead astray into thinking that there is a God who advocates this kind of thing. Passages of Christ's love of enemies and giving up His life for His enemies need to be taught as well. And overall, contemplating God's great love for us- for all of us, each one of us. What is taught to the flock will be put out by the flock. What a great responsibility is on those who would presume to be teachers.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Every Death is Remembered

This week is regrowing spinal tissue; a strange new gash in the seafloor; how red makes us do poorly on tests; believing in an angry God makes angry people; a pandemic currently among bees in America; and the giant particle smasher which is the center of our galaxy. While admittedly the angry God motif is intriguing and perhaps one I'll need to return to, I've decided to focus instead on cosmic death rays.

My thoughts these past few weeks have been greatly informed by Keith Miller's Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. It is nearly axiomatic that death is part of our religion, probably more so than any other. Without the presence of death, the cross is meaningless. Somehow, and theologians get to argue how ad nausea, the voluntary undeserved suffering and death of one man allowed me to have life, and have it abundantly.

I've been reflecting on how this isn't really a new idea. His death brought forth life par excellent, yes, but the foundation for it was present long before. Everywhere we look in creation, death brings life. It is only by the death of millions of microbes that I can live, or the death of a few big oxen that end up on my plate. Cells had to die in order for me to first form in my mother's womb. Because of limited resources only a certain number of organisms can survive in any particular environment. As some die, others are able to develop into the new spaces, and develop into new ways. Jesus referred to this idea when he said that "unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it can not produce life". He calls us all to give up the old man or woman, to pick up our crosses, and follow Him. I think God set up the principle for the last few billion years, that it would be abundantly clear in every area of life, so that we could finally embrace the soteriology that Christ's ultimate death brings ultimate life.

Then today I read of a new type of gamma ray bursts, greater and therefore more deadly than anything else seen before. It is hypothesized that they could completely wipe out even the most hardy life if they occur close enough to a planet with life on it. And we can see the bursts at least daily somewhere in space.

What kind of God does this? What kind of God incorporates cosmic death rays into His creation, and death into the basic processes of life?

I don't know. I'm not going to try to answer all of the problem of pain here. But I think part of it is that there is something in the very nature of things that allows for life to come from death; that sees the value in death for providing a new formulation and a new creation. This is the mystery of the cross- a good man could die, and so save everyone else, conquering death.

But there is a another mystery here. Another hypothesis is that one of these gamma bursts actually did hit our planet, back in a time period called the Ordovician, 450 million years ago. It was the third biggest mass extinction in our planet's history. (We're currently going through the largest.) It had nothing really directly to do with us humans, the pinnacle of creation. Most of us don't know anything about this extinction, or all these amazing and diverse creatures that once lived at that time, on the land and the seas.

But God does. And I think that's the point. He is aware of all of His creation. He knows if a sparrow falls to the ground and dies. He cares if it dies from falling, or from cosmic rays. He cares about a trilobite dying 450 million years ago- however it died. He is the Great Empathizer, feeling with the pain of all of His creation.

Laurie Bratten points out in Perspectives that this creation is made for God, not for us. Yes, as far as His creation goes, we're pretty special. But we're not everything. Babel should have taught us that. (Although it didn't.) As God tells Job, "Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no man lives, a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?" He is aware of every aspect of creation, and intimately involved in it- whether or not we are aware of it now, or ever will be. He knows what happens to the trilobite, and orchestrates the ecology of a sea long dead and disappeared, before we ever came on the scene. There's something humbling in that- that there is so much out there that we as humans will never know, for His creation is just too vast. It is not made for us, but rather for His glory.

When I think on what He has made, and all the years of work He has put into it, I worship my Creator. None can compare to Him, none can even begin to approach the richness of his awesome power and imagination. He has made a universe, and it exists in simple monument to His glory.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

War Dance, It's a Sin

According to World Science, playing video games makes for good surgeons (which we already knew from watching Scrubs); archaeologists are rethinking how important the Clovis people were in Native American history; birds plan what they're going to eat (or at least scrubs do); and there's a new genetic link to autism (again). Oh, and we found some wild chimps who came up with the idea on their own of making and using spears to hunt other animals.

That's kind of big, actually. It used to be we were the only ones who made plans as a species (those scrub jays proved us wrong there). It used to be we were the only ones who built homes (bowerbirds). We were the only ones who used language- except for animals too numerous to mention. But at least, please God, we are the only ones who develop our own weapons of warfare? Please, at least we are unique in this respect?

No, looks like others can do this too.
Pan troglodytes has been found doing the nasty, finding new and inventive ways to kill others. They appear to have figured this out without any human help (although room must be given for the possibility of them observing humans). This particular tribe of chimps cuts off branches, sharpens them with their teeth, and then goes on hunting parties, which are at least occasionally successful, having killed a bushbaby, a relative of the chimp. They don't just go after rats or pigs, they even attack their own relatives. Just like us. Next thing you'll know they'll be writing their own blogs.

The article discusses how this has far-reaching implication for how we understand our own evolution. Tool use has been thought to be limited to the genus Homo, based on archeological evidence. But if Pongidae can use tools, then perhaps tool use was far earlier, with Australopithecus. After all, all fossil evidence is very limited, and tells an incomplete story. Additionally this particular chimp tribe was composed primarily of adolescent and young adult spear-hunters, whereas most chimp hunters are older adults, bolstering the idea that innovative ideas are learned quicker by the younger generations. And the spear-hunters are mixed gender, unlike most chimp hunters who are exclusively male, indicating that perhaps the first tool inventors were of both genders, as other evidence also indicates.

But besides this being a blow to our ego in uniqueness, this discovery also might have something to say about the nature of evil and warfare. In the Genesis myth the humans are cast out of the garden for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It had a long name, and justifiably so. But we usually truncate that name, wanting to call it the Tree of Evil. I think there is a valuable point in the long name. It was when we humans were able to distinguish good and evil, as God makes a point of later in the story, that we also were capable of sin. And the ability to distinguish good and evil requires a certain higher reasoning, a certain cognitive development. To know that this or that action is absolutely wrong, or absolutely right, means I have to have a certain level of thought. Before that point, the action is morally neutral.

It might be argued that a dog knows if it's done something wrong. But the dog knows it's master believes something is wrong, or right, and learns to internalize that. Don't eat the master's children. That's bad. Doesn't matter that my wolf ancestors might have done that, if I do it, I don't get food, I sleep outside, or I get killed. It learns new rules. But the dog is simply incapable of understanding the more abstract notion of an absolute right or wrong.

If I lack a certain level of thought, I can plop my children in another live being and have them eat that other being alive as much as I want. I am not sinning. I simply don't know right from wrong. I can have sex with my sister while still inside the womb, and then die, and my children do this over and over again. It's not wrong- there's no brain, and certainly no higher thought involved.

But the moment I reach that point, that magical level of thought, be that in the Upper Neolithic, or the beginnings of Homo sapiens, or when Hominidae first arrived on the scene- whenever that happened- I knew good from evil. The moment we were this aware, we sinned. Sadly, simply on this level of reality, intelligence could not be divorced from sin. For we were aware of the difference between the two, and we always end up choosing, at some point, no matter how insignificant, sin. We choose to miss the mark and turn from God and good.

The chimpanzees invented spears. They're hunting another species, but another primate. In all the millenia of chimpanzee evolution, odds are they've done this before, if they came up with the idea now. It's not necessarily a new idea with humans. The chimpanzee might use the new invention on each other, as we once did. After all, there are attacks and infanticide and matricide and all kinds of killing among wild chimpanzees- including clan warfare. Spears would just give an edge. But there is a difference. When we do it, we know good from evil, even if we've forgotten. When we invent gigantic spears that can fly across the Atlantic and impale hundreds of thousands in a single flash, we know what the evil is, and what the good would be. The chimpanzees don't. They operate out of forethought, and a certain degree of intelligence, but they have not learned the difference between good and evil. Likely the ability to invent spears was there before we reached this cognitive development point. Likely we even invented spears and attacked other clans with them. But at the point when we first learned enough to know good and evil, we also learned it was wrong, and it became wrong.

And likely the same moment when we could reason well enough, when we reached the ability to sin, is when we also were designated in the image of God, capable of fully cognitively worshipping the Creator.

Friday, 16 February 2007

The Wonder of Growth

World Science has posted new articles on: a seed vault to protect genetic diversity in the future; parent's don't realize how heavy their kids are; origami has some really cool mathematical properties; naps cut heart disease; pot helps reduce pain if you have AIDS; and how Cleopatra was ugly.

We may well have found the youngest star ever.
There in the midst of the famed gases of the Eagle Nebula, so well publicized through the Hubble Telescope, in the Pillars of Creation, is a bit of gas and dust dense enough to be a protostar, and probably very similar to what our sun was like.

Some have argued that God created the world, the universe, everything, in seven days. Others say He did it all long ago, over millions of years, or that He does it repeatedly, when something is just too irreducibly complex and He needs to step in. I guess I'm just not interested in that kind of god. A god who started everything, made everything, and then stepped back. My experience is with a God who is so intimately tied into His creation that He is present everywhere within it. He is so close to it that He breathes part of His Spirit into a portion of it.

To argue that He started everything off and then stepped back, even if only 6,000 years ago, strikes me as just...incomplete. Even saying He still sustains creation isn't enough. The main thrust of His act died, as if stillborn on the table. It lacks panache, finesse, a hope of wonder, the excitement of a truly new thing. I want a God who does something new- rivers in the solitude that eventually cut canyons from the mountains.

How much more exciting to think that He is out there still, forming new stars! Oh, certainly through the path of stellar evolution (not at all related to biological evolution, except as a platform), via the actions of gravity and randomness. And yet, present through it all, for in Him, the stars live and move and have their being. Perhaps He started it all off, and set it all up, so that it worked and meshed perfectly. I don't mean that all of the universe is perfect- but rather that the processes are wondrous. The concept of continuous change, of life and death, of building and destroying- who could imagine it?

And if He started it all off, does that negate His intimate presence? Does that diminish Him? I think rather it increases His glory, that He doesn't need to step in at every moment (or every few thousand years for the IDists), to tweak some bit that's wandered off in the wrong direction.

This also in no way denies His presence in the miraculous, where He interjects Himself for our sake to show some manifestation of the numinous. Whether or not that type of interjection was predetermined or concurrent with our reality is rather immaterial, for a Being outside of time.

What that stellar evolution lacks in DNA intricacy it makes up for in grandeur. It is certainly possible to look into the Heavens and deny there is a God. Ontological proof isn't the point. Rather it is simple worship. Here is One who revels in His creative acts, continuing them for the pure joy of it.

The God I follow dwelt among us for awhile, then dying and rising again. The myth of the dying God takes on new flesh in Christianity, and is central to the story, recapitulated continually throughout the life of the early church. Death brings life. There is value in undeserved suffering. Not that it is good, in any way. But rather that the Creator comes alongside His creation, and suffers with them. And in the process affirms the age-old myth of death and rebirth.

In stellar evolution, this is present, too. Stars go nova, becoming nebula, from whence new stars are born. There in the Eagle Nebula new stars are born. And research in January indicates that six thousand years ago the Pillars of Creation were destroyed by supernovae. It is hoped that some of these protostars remain. We'll find out in about a thousand years. But the cycle of birth and death will continue regardless. As will the wonders of a continuously changing creation.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

It's only appropriate to follow tradition- let the woman make the first move.

Well, World Science has a wide variety of research posted this week. Some cichlids use logic to determine who is the weaker fish in a fish fight, and then hang out with the weaker. Other cichlids have sex with their sisters, possibly to increase parenting skills. There's possibly a rejuvenation pill out there, new ideas on the operation of cosmic blasts 100 billion times stronger than our sun, and a new collider in the works. Action video games help visual acuity more than Tetris, Global Warming is bad, and we're a step closer to understanding how drugs cause hallucinations.

I'm interested in waxing a bit anthropological today though, looking at the African island of Orango, part of Guinea-Bissau. There the women chooses her husband by placing a specially prepared dish of fish in front of him, and he has no right to refuse. Then the woman has four months to build their home, at which point they are officially married. The article is looking at the cultural transition the society is going through, as modern ideas begin to creep in through work off-island- like the idea that the man should initiate.

This has led to some conflict, with different individuals choosing the traditional role and others choosing the modern way. But what I found most horrifying was the introduction of Christian missionary ideas into the equation. Don't get me wrong- got nothing against Christianity, or the right of a religion to share it's ideas. But its the form that this particular sharing is taking that is disturbing.

Christianity has a long and honorable history of sharing about it's ideas, while maintaining cultural purity in every way possible. For instance, the first great female evangelist, Nina, tried very carefully to honor the culture of 4th century Georgia, while sharing about Jesus. At the same time Christians have fought against certain elements of the culture, like the setti practice of India.

But in more recent centuries there developed the missionary practice of ignoring culture if it didn't fit with the particular religious interpretations of the missionaries. Thus the Hawaiians were told to clothe, stop the hula, and restrict their sexual activity, all in the name of a propriety that exists nowhere explicitly in the Bible. Or schools attempted to conflation their country of origin with the culture of the Gospel, believing that the people they were reaching out to needed to become more Western or European or American in order to become more Christian. At times there is a clear moral guideline that needs changing (don't burn women while they're still alive); at other times it's an issue of humility, recognizing that God could speak to different cultures in different ways.

There have been a rash of books in the last couple decades, like Elizabeth Elliot's Passion and Purity or Josh Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye, that argue that a woman is told by the Bible and God to be a wallflower, and to wait for the man to act. She must be passive, and he is active. This is simply ordained in the ways of nature, and God. Let's move beyond that this is selective quote mining and proof texts, seeking to simply confirm dominant cultural values. Let's move beyond the ignoring of Song of Songs ("my breasts are as towers") or Ruth (feet were usually a euphemism for another body part in ancient Hebrew culture). It also completely ignores the many strong women of the ancient church, like Junia, the apostle mentioned at the end of Romans. Pederson does an excellent job in her book pointing out the strong feminism of Jesus, Paul, and the early Church, encouraging women in the role as leaders. Sadly a few centuries later this is all erased through misogynist Church Fathers.

Now the missionaries on this island are telling the women it is wrong for them to initiate in relationships. That Jesus is against it. That if they are to be Christian, they have to let the man lead.

I've got nothing against individual women deciding that a man should initiate. In some cultures, this may be more appropriate. But for someone to misuse Jesus and the Bible to argue that this is in the very nature of things is highly inappropriate. This inappropriateness just heightens in intensity when people of another culture are told to change their ways, rather than allow women to initiate and lead.

Whenever we enter a culture, we bring in changes. Most often in the case of the modern West, these are technological changes (and MTV). It becomes incumbent therefore for the guest in a culture to be very careful of the changes they bring. Are these changes truly necessary? Are we truly improving the quality of life of those we are trying to love? I say to these missionaries, that the people of Orango appear to know more about the teachings of Christ and the apostles than you. Sadly by the time the Orango have the technology to be able to read this blog, they will likely also have been thoroughly influenced by the modern ideas of female submission.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Beware Roving Packs of Rat Sperm

This week's World Science download was replete with wonders. You might have seen this on the evening news, but we found the probable village of the creators of Stonehedge. Scientists are urging robots to dig deeper for life on Mars, as it's more likely to be found where exposure to radiation hasn't damaged spores over the last billion years. Vomiting is found to be the most horrible sound (but in a horribly flawed study of online users self-evaluating what sounds they dislike the most). Gastric cancer probably killed Napoleon. And really cool- an early dinosaur probably didn't fly like a dragonfly, but rather like a biplane- with four wings!

And packs of rat sperm might work together to compete against sperm from other males. That's just a beautiful sentence. Because mice and rats reproduce so much, often more than one male's sperm can be found in the vaginal canal of the female. And because their sperm have a hook on the head they can link up together in giant balls, which allows them to swim faster and stronger. Then one individual spermatozoa in the sperm ball will reach the egg first, and his brother sperm die off, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their brother, and winning against the sperm of another male rat.

Altruism is always a sticky point for evolution. If the foundation is that you compete to carry on your genes, then why sacrifice your life for another? If there is a sacrifice, then often we try to find out why, explaining it away as trying to continue on your genes. So every ant in a colony is more closely related to it's sister ant than to the queen, and so they are more likely to fight to defend each other, as that will carry on their genes.

Is altruism really so amazing though? In most cases, in the animal kingdom and among humans, altruism occurs firstly to those within your family, and then to those further afield. It is almost always only expressed towards one's own species. In the case of humans, there is the added dimension of a mind, capable of reformatting the definition of family to include those in a community, the entire species, or even those like dogs and cats, of other species.

Lions therefore have been known to sacrifice their opportunities to reproduce for the sake of others in their pride. But again, they are at least distantly related to those in the pride (and usually as close as brother and sister), allowing for part of their genes to continue. But is it really so surprising that an evolutionary mechanism could have developed to continue on offspring that are not directly your own? Imagine for a moment where a mother produces offspring that are inherently sterile, but who assist the reproductively viable offspring. Would not the viable offspring be more likely to live, thereby continuing on the genes to produce some offspring that are viable, and some that are sterile?

For a long time biology has been focused on competition- and rightfully so. But what about the amount of cooperation that also occurs? Could not this also be guided by evolutionary mechanisms of natural selection? Joan Roughgarden asks these questions in Evolution and Christian Faith, an excellent look at the relationships between Christianity and evolution. He suggests that evolution is indeed an imperfect theory (as all scientists would agree), but that it could be drastically improved by focusing on cooperation.

Would it be heretical to say that perhaps biology has been too masculine in orientation? Of course there is no way to state how men and women are- we can only speak in generalizations. But science has long been a strongly male domain. I found in my experience the only exception to that was in marine biology. Although a generalization, it does seem many psychological studies indicate that human males like to compete. And although there are certainly exceptions, and new studies have been looking at the prevelance of female bullies, it does seem like human females tend towards cooperation. Could it be that scientists have simply ignored data because of a general predeliction towards certain values? It wouldn't be the first time. Those of us who are racist saw the data indicating that whites were superior, because we wanted it to be there, ignoring contrary data that didn't fit with our desires. Lynn Margulis was finally able to prove that mitochondira developed from endosymbiosis, a cooperation between two very different species- but she had to fight for years before she was accepted, and for a long time was laughed at in the biology world for the idea that organisms could cooperate like that.


Dr. Roughgarden points out that one of the biggest reasons Literal Creationists have a knee-jerk reaction to evolution is because of the idea of competition, in that it goes so much against the grain of Christ's teachings. And indeed it does, unless we expand and redefine genetic similarity to all those within the Church, and all humans. We certainly wouldn't want to change biological facts to fit the belief systems of a particular religion. But what if there actually is more of a fit than we normally credit? What if, in addition to competition, cooperation also rules the biological world? Our own bodies not only harbor numerous parasites, but also symbiotic bacteria. Again, the very mitochondria of our cells were once separate prokaryotes. However multicellularity arose, it involved the merging of various cells. Today the cells of our bodies cooperate with each other. When they don't, we have a word for it. We call it cancer.

These rat cells may be only a more overt demonstration of how individuals work together. It may be that the ethic of evolution involves not only "red in blood, tooth and claw", but also profound cooperation, and self-sacrifice. If so, the research has only begun.

We learn in Sesame Street the value of cooperation. We also learn that in the nature of God, who has always been eternal Love. Love requires a lover and a lovee, and we see the explanation of this in the doctrine of the Trinity, wherein God loved the other of Himself for all preternity. He taught us the value of this through community in the early Church, where all gave up what they had and shared it in common, so no one was in need- but everyone had houses, lands, brothers, and sisters 100-fold. In the same way I grew up with limited private property, sharing all in common with 80 others, and with 20 houses and cars and countless brothers and sisters. Self-sacrifice through cooperation is an enduring ethic of God. And it would seem that He placed at least some of the ethic within His creation, even down to the level of rat spermatozoa.

Monday, 22 January 2007

The last shall be first.

Ducks will negotiate over how much they help each other in parenting. Scientists find the area of the brain that is responsible for altruism. Rare black diamonds may come from outer space. The earliest records of Homo sapiens sapiens in Europe have been found, near Moscow, 45,000 years ago, with the earliest sculptures, in the form of small heads.

And winning the Nobel Prize adds two years to your life. They were able to determine that the money was statistically irrelevant. It's the social status that's gained that extends the lifespan- but scientists aren't sure what the mechanism is.

This brings up some intriguing questions. What is status? Does the social status need to be in the eyes of society, or in the eyes of the individual? Is the gain in life from the undeterminable perks from everyone looking up to you? Or is it from the well-being that you feel as holistic being, knowing that you are valued? Or perhaps from the well-being you feel in valuing yourself?

The determination of status will very from culture to culture, and within cultures. If this is true, the Masai with the most cows will live the longest. (But you'd have to do that study separating out the economic value of the cows.) What if status is determined by how simple your lifestyle is? An Indian Guru has high status in part because he is an asthetic. When I was growing up we valued the person who could go procuring the best (dumpster-diving).

We used to play a game when I was a child and we were standing in line. We'd all try to be in the last person in the line. We'd heard that Jesus had said "The last shall be first, and the first last." In our primitive understanding of that we'd try to be the last in line, and playfully make fun of the person who was in front, because they'd get to go to Heaven last. As kids we didn't really understand the meaning of the passage, but there is a basic point there. If you're following the ethics of Jesus, then status doesn't really matter. You shouldn't be figuring out if you'll be sitting at the right hand of Jesus, or even Alfred Nobel. You should strive to be the last, to take the worst seat, and be like Jesus, with no place to lay your head and without wealth. In doing this, you'll be offered the best seats, and be first in Heaven and the Kingdom of God. So if a society has this standard of social standing, does that mean the poor and debased would live an extra two years?

No, because part of that debasement is for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing. To say your prayers in private to avoid the honor associated with prayers, and to give in private so your reward will be in Heaven, and not here on Earth. Were status to be gained in the doing of these deeds, they would no longer be following the Way. If status were given for being poor, the Poor would quickly cease to be so. Two years might be gained for the attempt, but it's hardly the original call.

Here's the deal. Jesus' path wasn't a call to social advancement. But it wasn't even a call to a good life. It was a call to a hard life, with a lot of suffering. He told everyone to pick up their electric diodes, apply jelly to their skin, and sit down in the chair to be electrocuted. (Modern translation.) It is a call to expect death, and indeed to welcome it for the Joy of seeing the Lord and serving Him. It is being willing to die. It is therefore completely contrary to that evolutionary call that runs through all of us to reproduce and live as long as possible to reproduce as much as possible. It is perhaps akin to those Australian Redback Spiders, wear the male says to the female, "Take, eat, this is my body," and jumps into her jaws. But he does this in order to have a better position for mating. We're called to jump into the jaws of our oppressors as our Lord did, with no hope or expectation of improved mating.

Evolutionary paradaigms are descriptive, but there is nothing in them that must be prescriptive. And I increasingly believe that the Christian moral paradaigm is to negate evolutionary drives. It is not as if God made a mistake when he set up the paradaigm of natural selection. But creatures aware of good and evil as we are have a different set of standards. The female Australian Redback Spider is not committing any sin when she feeds off her mate to feed their new children.

Different societies have different standards. Most societies seek to elevate themselves in order to gain status, power, and wealth. Is it any wonder then that the scientists chose to do their study of status and longetivity on Nobel Prize winners?

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

A New Old Thing

How cell division leads to assymetry in the body. Superstrings helping with The Theory of Everything. The first stars might have been SuperGiants. Nightmares and suicide are linked (and women have more nightmares than men). We found the part of the brain that lets us envision ourselves in the future, and it appears to be linked to the envisioning of the past. (I think my future lobe is pretty enhanced, from the amount of time I spend daydreaming impossible possibilities.) A particularly interesting study that allows scientists to now completely say whether or not someone will buy a product: if the area in the brain devoted to wanting an object wins out on the area feeling the pain of paying money. Interesting because it's a branch hypothesis off this suggests that people buy more with credit cards because it's painless- deferred payment and abstract payment means our brains don't comprehend the real pain of buying.

It would appear that Ithaca, the island of Ulysses in the Odyssey, is a bit mysterious. There's a modern island by that name, but according to the Odyssey Ithaca is the Westernmost island of the Ionian chain- modern Ithaca doesn't fit this. But the Westernmost island is far too big to fit the Odyssey description. However, the Western tip of this island, Kefalonia, has a peninsula, connected to the main portion of the island by a narrow isthmus. A 122 m borehole hit no bedrock, but only loose sediment, leading to the beginnings of an idea that the isthmus was filled in by landslides over the intervening 3,000 years.

It has long been believed that Homer's Ithaca was modern Ithaca. Although it is axiomatic that what we believe to be true can turn out to be false later, I find this to be particularly true in post-dictional science, anthropology and archeology. Our dearest held beliefs of the way things were, the way things must be, get overturned with time, as we learn new things about the way it truly was.

This isn't always true. The book of Daniel is controversial as it has indications of a later writing in the Inter-Testemental Period, yet it has strong indications of an earlier writing as well. It refers to items that were known at the presumptive time of writing, yet forgotten for millenia, only to be rediscovered in the modern era. What we thought was true was claimed to be overturned, and then reversed again as some pointed out the historical awareness.

Yet very often the old understandings need tweaking at least. As we learn more about the nature of myth and discover there is no indications of a worldwide flood, the Noahaic Flood ceases to make sence, except as a localized event featuring the breaking of the Bosphorus. Christianity and Judaism are no longer as unique as we begin to discover our immense debt to Zorastrian concepts like Heaven, an afterlife, satan, and cosmic dualism. As I read The Quest for the Historical Muhammed I learn that our long held assumptions about Islam might not hold water- like that the Hadith might have no accuracy at all, the Qur'an might have been written 2 centuries after it's presumptive writing, and Mohammed (pbuh) might not even exist. Obviously these are far-ranging thoughts, and I don't agree with all of them. But it represents the nascent attempt to apply historical criticism to Islam, something long done on Christianity (and often used in Islamic apologetics).

The Odyssey took place so long ago, it seems it represents both sides of this conflict. Like the flood, we are now learning our long-held assumptions on the place of Ithaca were incorrect. Yet, like Daniel, we are finding that the original writing was more correct then we long thought. Homer didn't err (in this case)- he wrote of a real place, and accurately described it.

It is indeed hard to parse the mysts of time. It requires painstaking research, brushstroke by brushstroke. And it requires a suspension of belief. A belief that my holy traditions are always right, or my interpretations of them, will obscure the truth behind those traditions. And a belief that my modern science has discovered everything, or is somehow superior to the knowledge of the Ancients, will also suspend the march towards true understanding. It would seem that the path of humility, the willingness to admit that we might be wrong, and the embrace of adaptability and change are the only sure ways of reaching the truth. It is like the old Shaker spiritual is correct path: To turn, turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

A Bird in the Fist

Nothing really grabbed my attention this time around. But I remain committed to the Method. So, World Science posted articles on the diversity of comet dust; Bush's rather surprising decision to label the polar bear as endangered, meaning that oil drilling could be curtailed in the Arctic areas because of global warming, rat dreams, a hormone that increases trust and mind reading, and the one I was thinking on, how we (mammals) might have flown before birds.

Turns out the article is talking about gliding more than flying, and the animal looks suspiciously like a squirrel (but it's in a different order), so I guess I don't feel the shivers down my spine upon reading this. But it's interesting to note how important it is for us. That no matter what the outcome or meaning of the article, it grabs the attention because it's a mammal. We tend to be quite biased in this matter- something Stephen Jay Gould (pbuh) often pointed out. Anything mammalian, or remotely mammalian, gets higher focus and interest. This is certainly true in the popular press and imagination, but even creeps into scientific journals. I suppose this should be no suprise, as the money for scientific research has to come from somewhere, and that's usually not scientists. But also, most scientists tend to be mammals. We care more about those that are similar to us. We care to such a great extent we even extend that maxim to subgroups within our own species, to our detriment. It's important to learn about the earliest flying mammal because it has mammary glands (well, half of them did), hair, live birth (again, half of them)...Better yet, what if we got there before that other group, that has the audacity to do something we can only dream of doing without machines, and we got there before them in the very thing they have the cheek to crow about so much?

I'm reminded of something Van Baer described, that early creationist who first pointed out similarities in embroys between different species. (It was a time when all evolution was believed to progress in discrete lines, so pointing out similarities between species would actually be an argument against evolution.) In 1828 he described a situation where a conference of birds were discussing those horrid mammals. They might say that "'Those four and two-legged animals bear many resemblances to our own embryos, for their cranial bones are separated, and they have no beak, just as we do in the first five or six days of our incubation; their extremities are all very much alike, as ours are for about the same period; there is not a true feather on their body, rather only thin feather-shafts, so that we, as fledglings in the nest, are more advanced than they will ever be . . . And these mammals that cannot find their own food for such a long time after birth, that can never rise freely from the earth, want to consider themselves more highly organized than we'?" It's all a matter of perspective, and bias.

This World Science article is interesting to most of us, and to me, simply out of old-fashioned patriotism. I value the mammals more. Doesn't matter that personally I find invertebrates infinitely more fascinating. Some part of me wants to be the first in the air- or at least to have some part of me having been the first in the air. I always want my group to be first, no matter how I struggle against this desire. It's in my genes, after all- my group first means my genes go forward, in some sense. Perhaps that's the final explanation and cause for all the strife that we have. Our quarrals and fights result from the desires that war within us, for we ask with wrong motives, that we might spend on our own pleasures- the greatest pleasure of all, to have us, our group, supreme. Perhaps then it's the final call, to go beyond our naturally selected drive, and come to the place where we are satisfied immensely, eternally, if the other guy wins.
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.