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.
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.