Thursday, 9 July 2009

Sit at my Right Hand

Throughout the Bible, the right hand is favored. If you want to honor someone, then you put them on your right hand. It is often argued that this is merely a cultural expression. Jewish and Middle Eastern culture favors the right hand. Indeed, this idea is supported by the numerous references to the "right" in the Qur'an, and specifically with the benefits of being on the right hand. Certainly, Muslims today take the concept much further than the West, with the right hand used for communication and the left for the...unmentionables. And of course, these cultural practices are probably based in the reality that the majority, 90% of us, are right-handed, and thus this is the preferred arm of use.

But now, we see a further biological justification. New studies indicate that we are more likely to grant a request if it is asked into the right ear. It seems that this idea of favoring someone at your right is not merely cultural, but is deeply ingrained biologically, and likely the authors of the Bible were unknowingly basing their descriptions of God on this. (Alternatively, God is communicating through our cultures, and what he knows of the cultures he designed.) Interestingly, women in the studies were more likely to grant the right ear than men, indicating perhaps a greater predisposition to grant requests.

Now, this may be simply a cultural expression in our right-handed cultures, and further study is warranted, looking at those who are left-handed to see if there is a different response, and performing controls with cultures that have a greater percentage of the left-handed. In the meantime, it appears that our understanding of God is based in part on God's understanding of us. Though we in the West may no longer be so tied to chirality, we still operate with an innate understanding of it's import. God speaks through culture, through his prophets, but regardless of our hope for free-will, we also operate under some basic instincts. We listen and grant a request if it is on our right. Though God of course has no body, and therefore no right or left, he also, figuratively, is more likely to grant the request to those on his right hand.

We should therefore strive for this, to sit at the right hand of God. We should not demand it, but rather ask. But as the pericope of the Sons of Zebedee indicates, the way one asks for this honor, to gain the place where God is more likely to hear your requests, is to become a servant of all, taking the last and lowest place. This brings honor, and God's ready ear, to grant our requests. And, I suspect, that the more we take this place of the lowest, the more likely we are to ask for that which God is more likely to grant, just as we grant the requests to those on our own right.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Controlling Love

A pet provides a means of control. We want to be able to control nature around us, not to live in harmony. We want to find a way to conquer- even if it means changing the very genetic code of wild animals to tame them. We try to to control animals emotionally, projecting our own thoughts and feelings upon them, as a recent study with dogs convincingly demonstrated. If the owner thought the dog had done something, the dog looked guilty to the owner. If the owner scolded the animal, the dog looked more guilty to everyone who observed the dog. If the dog had done nothing wrong, and was scolded, he looked most guilty.

This stems from communication barriers between dramatically different cultures. If I can mean one thing and communicate another to a human from a different culture, how much more dramatically will be the divergence in communication across species lines! Consider the simple hug, of arms around the neck, that we primates love to do. To the dog, even the pet dog, this is an act of aggression, going after the vulnerable jugular veins, and it is only with great effort that our tame wolves are able to control themselves- as evidenced by the enlarged whitening of their eyes in fear response. (Incidentally, a physical trait that we two species do share.) Thus love from one species communicates as attack to another.

But we are the dominant "wolf" in the pack, and we lay the ground rules. The dog tries desperately to follow them, and is happily assisted by some 30,000 years of selective breeding to more effectively read human expressions and emotions. Indeed, we have not been so well bred to them. So when the dog sees us angry and demanding that they have done something wrong, the dog knows the proper response to ameliorate the head wolf: act ashamed, or rather, lower the head and look up in the submissive posture- whatever it takes to make us happy. When the human sees this, usually, the anger begins to dissipate, for the human then feels they have asserted themselves to some degree over nature, have controlled something in their life.

We desperately want to believe our dogs and other pets are intelligent and can understand us. But intelligence is relative. They aren't intelligent when compared to whales, primates, or pigs. They are quite intelligent when compared to rodents. But that's not a level of intelligence that extends to the knowledge of good and evil, to the awareness that they have done something inherently wrong. It is an intelligence that is able to avoid discomfort and pursue comfort, regardless of inherent morality. Comfort comes from doing what the pack leader wants, what the human owner wants.

For us, comfort comes from loving, and being loved. Of course, the best way to do this is with humans. But for some, it just doesn't seem to work out. Because humans are messy. You can't control them, like you can a dog. When you try to, it's bad all around. A healthy human relationship is one without control, but with learning to love that which does not obey your every command, and should not obey it. Animals, on the other hand, can be taught to do whatever we want, or nearly everything. It is decidedly more convenient. It's a lot less messy. It's a lot less love, in the deep sense of agape, loving the unlovable.

And so, just as we all create God in our own image, we do the same to our pets. We look for ways to make them more human, to respond the way humans respond, or rather, the way one particular human responds- ourselves. We want to see a mirror image with fangs and fuzzy fur, that cocks it's head cutely and responds as we would want to respond. It is like a Bizzaro World reapplication of Christ's relationship principle. Not "Do to others as you would have them do to you," but "Expect others to do as you would do."

And this is not to say that this is in any way wrong, when applied to animals. But let us realize what we are doing, and realize what are reasonable expectations of our pets. Yes, our dog can learn to behave and follow our rules. It can not feel wrong, or be ashamed, or engage in a meaningful relationship. What we see there is our own projections of reality, and our pursuit of that is merely incestuous relationship, a bird enamored with its own reflection.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

What do you do when your Theory is too good?

For so long now, we've been patiently explaining how evolution works, to all those who want to listen. It does not produce Hopeful Monsters, with an X-Men-like change in one generation. None of us are going to get Healing Factors or the ability to shoot lasers out of our eyes. It's a slow process, taking generations, and hundreds of thousands of years. This is why the argument by Literal Creationists that no dog has ever produced a cat is so silly. It is nothing but a straw man, for no biologist has ever argued anything remotely like that. Given the right environmental factors, over many, many generations, and a hundred thousand years, the remote descendants of dogs might appear to look more like cats than they do today- but that's a big if. And granted, fast reproducing species like bacteria and viruses do show evolution in our lifetime, with a high rate of Darwins (the units of evolutionary speed), so that we can easily trace how the HIV virus evolved in different environments into different "species", or types. (The environment in that case would be various populations of us, depending on our sexual activities.) But bacterial and viral selection has never been as sexy, if you'll pardon the pun.

Now, in the span of a few generations- twenty-six to be exact- and in eight years, guppies show selection towards various fecundity (birth) levels, depending on their environments. When put into two streams where there were no guppies, the stream that had predators produced guppies that had many offspring (since some of them would be eaten), and the stream without predators produced fewer offspring. (For those that say that no new species if formed, all that is required there is for isolation change producing a slight tweak in reproductive structures, or time of breeding, or proteins on the egg, etc.)

This study dramatically shows how it is environment which drives evolutionary change, and the formation of new populations and species. A stable environment is unlikely to produce major changes or many species; a quickly changing environment, like that the dynamic equilibrium of the coral reefs, produces the greatest diversity of any ecosystem. But who knew that evolution could actually happen so quickly.

The question isn't why organisms evolve so slowly. It is more, how is it that they evolve so quickly, with so little encouragement? And granted, this does nothing to help the macrofauna in the 6th Mass Extinction Event we are causing. But does it provide some hope for the more quickly breeding microfauna?
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.