No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

The word is about, there's something evolving

Quick hits:
I've got a nasty cold that has sucked my will to live.
I never need to see the Penn&Teller Bullshit! show about circumcision ever again.
There's nothing I hate more than shiftless lazy white people calling on the government to solve all their problems.

I just finished Richard Dawkins' latest book, the God Delusion. Try to imagine a book cover-blurbed by the likes of Steven Pinker, Philip Pullman, Desmond Morris, Craig Venter and Penn&Teller. And dedicated to the late Douglas Adams. And he married Romana.

I seem to be getting off-track. Anyway, as usual, Dawkins is a fascinating and entertaining jerk. He tells a lot of interesting stories, presents interesting facts, and pursues interesting ideas. Why is it that we feel fine about arguing with people about their politics or favorite sporting team, but if the subject turns to religion, we treat them with kid gloves and respect? How many of you have ever seen (or been) the vegetarian who gets not-so-slightly scorned during a group pizza ordering exercise? But have you ever seen people roll their eyes and say, "Well, I guess we can't get sausage, since Bob's a Jew. Sheesh, Jews." In most cases, the vegetarian has specifically considered his or her choice as a matter of principle and ethical philosophy, but gets less respect than someone who follows ancient rules that proclaim locusts a food-item, but bacon (mmmmm... bacon) an abomination.
Some years ago, a man pulled me in off the sidewalk to turn the light out in his room so he could take a nap. Did I blurt out, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of!" No, I walked into this weirdo's house, turned off his light, shook his hand, bid him pleasant dreams and went on my way. Now, neither Dawkins nor I demand that all religion must be mocked and insulted (though Dawkins more or less does so himself) but it is interesting to consider why it gets treated with such unassailable respect that other human endeavors don't merit.
Dawkins also takes a look (naturally) at the evolutionary history of morality. Perhaps the most interesting point here was a discussion of the 'mis-firing' of evolutionary strategies. People enjoy fucking. Why? Because fucking makes more people. People who didn't enjoy fucking didn't make more people, so they aren't around any more. So the evolutionary rationale for enjoying a good fuck is that it promotes reproduction. Now, if you know your partner is infertile or using contraception... does that make you less interested in fucking?
From a gene's standpoint, such fucking is a big mistake -- a waste of time and energy. From your standpoint, it was good for me too. Your genes might be using you to make more of them, but the genes have produced a very simple set of behavior (me want fuck) that doesn't change in the light of higher knowledge (she's on the pill). Sexual desire "is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale."
Now consider altruism and kindness. We understand how these can develop as evolutionary stable strategies in cases where reciprocity and kinship can have an effect on passing on genes 'for' these traits. Our prehuman forebears (fore-apes?) no doubt travelled in small hunter-gatherer bands of closely related individuals. If you were a Homo habilis (or whatever), almost everyone you ever saw in your life was related to you and/or interdependent on you for survival. A simple rule of altruism could develop in this case that perhaps is 'misfiring' in the present day:

We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.

Dawkins' last phrases there demonstrate (in small) that he can still write inspiring things about the natural world and the study of it. I wish he had spent more time discussing what is right about not-believing-in-gods than he all-too-characteristically does on what's wrong about believing-in-gods. Although, at the same time, I have no desire to "be proud" of being an atheist. I am one and I think I'm right, but I don't see the point in taking pride in that fact. On the other hand, Dawkins did send out a stirring call that atheists should come out of the closet, and I've undertaken to do so. 'How can Mike possibly be more Out than he is?' you may conceivably wonder. In an act of defiance reminiscent of Ghandi and MLK, I bought a t-shirt. Nothing slighting, nothing argumentative, nothing witty(*). Just...

Wired has an interesting article about the "New Atheism". The term is, I hope, invented by the author himself and will spread no further. It makes it sound like an evangelical atheist movement that one could join. "Let's all go together to non-church and not-worship anything! We'll work ourselves up into a lather and start speaking in English!" That'd be even worse than the brights.

Anyway, since I talked about Dawkins, this gives me a chance to slip in a little bonus Darwin. lencrenoire points out that all of Darwin's work is now available online, including downloadable MP3's of Darwin's Greatest Hits. I left some notes to myself about certain passages from the Origin of Species (which I recently read for the first time), but for the life of me I have no idea what I wanted to say about them. Thus, you are spared an even longer post.

(*) Though I do have a perverse desire to have a shirt that reads:
We're here
We're nullifidian
Deal with it
Tags: blog, book, news, science

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