Accommodating religion doesn’t require adopting its trappings

I tried very hard to read A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Secular Bible. I really did. I started the book three times, and the last two times I skipped the soporific beginning and started to read from a random point somewhere in the middle of the book. I couldn’t do it. The Good Book is just not a very good book.

It’s not that Grayling’s prose is particular bad, although it’s not particularly good. It’s not that many of the things he writes are little more than self-help nostrums, although many of them are certainly that.

The problem is that Grayling’s imitation of the style of the old English bible makes his “new bible” seem more a parody than a transformation. He hasn’t so much updated the old bible as he has backdated his new ideas.

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Challenging anthropomorphic physics

Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?

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Babies, bonobos, and brains

I’ve written fairly often here about the behaviour of our nearest primate relatives, typically with a view to deflating the idea that there’s something special about the human animal. Of course, there is something special about us. But my contention has always been that our specialness is much more a matter of degree than of kind.

That is, to pick just one felicitously phrased example, I believe that we are specially creative, but not the product of special creation. Our superior mental abilities are extreme versions of similar or analogous abilities in other creatures; these abilities are not one-off gifts from a benevolent creative force, natural or supernatural.

I’m back to this topic thanks to the conjunction of three sources: a book, a journal study, and a popular science article. Although these sources are quite independent, taken together they highlight a number of connected points about primate mental development. And this set of overlapping sources adds yet another layer to the arguments that (1) evolutionary biology is the key to any deep understanding of human nature and behaviour and (2) our proudest achievements are extensions of the skills of other creatures.

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Falling off the cliff on purpose is dangerous for both Republicans and Democrats

Here I am in California, for another few hours anyway. I’m reading the newspapers, watching the news on TV, and listening and talking to real people. Everyone is paying attention to the Fiscal Cliff dramatics, but with less intensity than you might expect, given the hype about how dire the consequences will be if no deal is struck before midnight rings in 2013 in a couple of days. It seems that no one is really engaged; no one is really expecting much.

One thing that I’m noticing is the nearly universal pessimism, not to mention cynicism, that people down here express whenever the subject turns to the dysfunctional U. S. federal government. No one expects a comprehensive deal, and few hold any hope that the likely deal, to extend the middle class tax cuts and the extra unemployment benefits, will do anything more than yet again defer any comprehensive agreement.

And no one here is expressing faith in the legislators, who will, as they always do, calculate their fiscal principles in the currency of their chances for re-election. Continue reading

Apocalypse Not

One more time, the world didn’t end. Not that anyone really expected it to this time, but it’s always nice when it doesn’t happen.

This version of the End Times didn’t have the usual Biblical clout. This Last Day scenario didn’t feature the Antichrist, or a final battle on the fields of Armageddon, or a Heavenly Host announcing the return of Jesus to “rapture” up the faithful.

No, this time there was just some old stone calendar and speculations about asteroids, rogue planets, solar storms, a planetary core explosion, or a black hole inconveniently winking into existence between us and the moon. Spectacular, but not supernatural — except maybe for the black hole.

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Busy baby brains make all the difference

In the most recent post on this page (I’ve Mind, Hive Mind), I wrote that “our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain.”

Chip Walter made a strong case for this claim in his excellent, soon-to-be-published book, Last Ape Standing (which I recently reviewed on my BOOKS page). Now a new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, gives empirical support to the idea. Continue reading

I’ve mind, hive mind

Human intelligence is unique, and it isn’t.

Our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain, a power that includes the remarkable ability both to become aware of its own activity and to think about itself. Cognition and metacognition, on a scale no other animal even approaches.

Our intellects are not unique, in the sense that our formidable mental powers result from the action and interaction of the same neural raw material that compose all synaptic systems, large and small. A hundred neurons or a hundred million neurons is a difference of scale — a very significant difference — not a difference of kind.

The idea that all brains fall somewhere along the same neural continuum is reinforced by David Robson’s “Hive minds: Honeybee intelligence creates a buzz,” published by New Scientist on November 28th.

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Jellyfish immortality isn’t for me

At six thousand six hundred and some words, you’d think that Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? (New York Times MAGAZINE, December 2, 2012) would have something of consequence ot say about its subject.

It doesn’t.

After a rather perfunctory summary of the research into the so-called “immortal jellyfish,” Nathaniel Rich’s article devolves into a mostly tongue-in-cheek profile of the weird Japanese hydrozoan researcher and karaoke song-writer who is the most enthusiastic proponent of the peculiar kind of immortality represented by the Turritopsis dohrnii.

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