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.