2 01 2012

The following is an essay I slammed together after reading The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz. The reason for posting it here is to (hopefully) lay a foundation for future discussions of what is wrong with civil discourse in the US. Please bear in mind that any errors in the text are mine, not those of Dr. Schwartz.

All humans think. We are all, with the exception of the rare individuals with congenital brain disorders, equipped by millions of years of evolution with the ability to think coherently and rationally. This ability to think consciously is the major difference between the way humans think and the way every other animal on Earth thinks.

Many non-human animals can think. Squirrels can figure out how to get to the seeds in the bird feeder despite what humans do to make it difficult, for example. Cats and dogs develop a series of signals, both vocal and body language, to communicate their desires to each other and to humans. These are all signs of thinking. How is human thought different from that of non-human animals?

For one thing, humans are consciously aware of their thinking. This could be a disadvantage, from an evolutionary standpoint. If a Paleolithic human hunter-gatherers were constantly getting distracted by ideas and random thoughts, the species would have quickly vanished- from starvation or by getting devoured by the undistracted wildlife. Most humans have learned to ignore the storm of ideas and random thoughts that occur during every waking moment, and have trained themselves to focus their concentration on thoughts and ideas related to the current situation. This ability to concentrate thought when necessary became a major survival tool for our distant ancestors, as did the ability to allow the unfocused mind to offer new ideas. Concentrating attention and brainpower on the immediate threat/problem and the ability to develop oblique or non-linear solutions when necessary are the cornerstones of the human thought process. They are what make human thought so qualitatively different from that of non-human animals.

The brain of the non-human animal is designed to think in terms of sense-imagery. When the animal is hungry, it thinks about food. When the animal is cold, it thinks about getting warm. When the animal is hurt, it thinks about stopping the pain. Non-human animal thinking seems to stop there, however. Non-human animals seldom- if ever- display the ability to think about thinking about sense-imagery. Food is food is food. If there is no food readily available, the animal must seek it out when it gets hungry. When it gets cold, the animal seeks a place where it can be warm.

Only humans seem to be able to think about food (and other things) as a general class of items. Apples are food and fish are food and corn is food … to a non-human animal. To humans, all of these items come under a general category of things to eat. Water can be drunk, as can milk, beer, juice, etc. These are all grouped into a category of things to drink. These general categories can be combined and mixed ad infinitum. Apples and strawberries both belong in the general category of things to eat, and also in the general category of things that are red. The ability to make these generalizations also spawns a whole series of other generalizations: things that are not.

This thing is red. It belongs to a general class of things that are red. That thing is not red. It does not belong in the category of things that are red, it belongs in a larger category of things that are not red. That thing is a bicycle. It belongs in a general category of things to ride upon, and things that have wheels, and things that are man-made. It also belongs to the categories of things that are not wood, things that are not good to eat, things that are not flammable. This endless categorization seems simplistic, because it is so basic to our thought processes. It is basic, however … so basic that we often aren’t aware of the process while it is going on.

The best teacher is a poor student. A poor student requires the teacher to break down the concepts to be learned into more and more basic concepts. Eventually, the poor student forces the instructor to reach the most basic categories in order to give the poor student the underlying facts upon which the lesson is based. This process rarely goes very far into the basics with human students, because most human students are already aware (perhaps not consciously aware, but aware at some level) of the basic categories of most common items.

This awareness of basic facts is the biggest hurdle for the researchers trying to develop artificial intelligence. One group of computer scientists in Texas have spent more than a decade teaching their artificial intelligence project computer the most basic facts. Water is wet. Rocks are hard. Rocks are not edible. Fire is hot. Computers do not know these things. Almost any two-year- old human child knows these things, almost unconsciously. But it has taken more than ten years to try to teach a computer these facts, and the computer still can’t make the obvious inferences which pre-adolescent humans make from those facts without conscious thought.

Memory plays a role in animal thought as well. Many animals have prodigious memories. That old saw about elephants never forgetting has recently been demonstrated by experiment to be based in fact. Without memory, it would be difficult or impossible to train animals, and many animals would die because they couldn’t recognize a dangerous item or situation when they encountered it again.

Evolution has equipped most animals (almost all of the vertebrates have effective memory centers) with brains capable of storing and recovering sensory data. The animals without this ability doubtless kept encountering dangerous animals or situations without remembering the threats, and so eventually died out. Nature favored animals with effective memory centers. A larger, stronger rival may injure an animal trying to mate. When the animal tries again, it will remember that a larger animal is dangerous, and will not risk a confrontation with a larger rival; or perhaps will break off the confrontation soon enough to avoid injury. This ability to learn from remembered experience is common to both human and non-human animals.

A talent unique to humans is the ability to equate dissimilar experiences to entirely new situations. A non-human animal might not recognize a trap because it does not look, sound, or smell like previous traps. Only humans seem to be able to make the connection between previous experience and novel situations. Scientists and other researchers have yet to learn why humans can think this way, but paleoanthropolgists postulate that this talent might have given our ancestors an evolutionary edge over animals without the ability. Recognizing similarities to previous experience in a new situation allows humans to use the memory of the previous situation to help resolve the new one. That ability undoubtedly saved many lives as humans were evolving. Humans with more of this ability would survive more often than humans with less, and would pass on the genetic differences that granted this ability more often.

Another difference between human and non-human animal thought comes from the ability to recognize and translate symbols. Rock paintings are the earliest examples we have of human use of symbols. A mountain lion would not recognize the scratches on a rock face as an antelope, but almost any human instantly identifies those same scratches for what they represent:  a Paleolithic artist’s conception of an antelope. Symbols such as rock paintings or writing are simply areas of light or darkness to a non-human animal. Some animals might recognize that there was a pattern to the light or dark areas, but the meaning of the patterns (or even the existence of a meaning to the patterns) would not be understood.

Some researchers have managed to teach apes to recognize symbols, and work is underway to teach dolphins, dogs, and other mammals to recognize certain symbols. Several chimpanzees can recognize drawings as having a relationship to word-sounds. This monumental achievement is the result of decades of hard work, similar to the intensive effort to teach basic facts to a computer in Texas. Human children begin recognizing symbols as young as one year of age, and many learn to read by the time they are three or four years old- something no non-human animal of any age has yet accomplished.

Human use of symbols (language, writing, art, mathematics, etc.) is another cornerstone of the human thinking process.  Language came first. Many non-human animals have a language of sorts. Basic concepts such as warnings, mating calls, etc., are used by many species. Few of these ‘languages’ are capable of transmitting more than the most basic of messages, however. Human language is capable of communicating detailed information. Where an antelope might give a warning call meaning “danger”, a human could give a call of the same duration that might mean, “there’s a lion in the bushes to your left!” referring to the same threat.

The density and complexity of information transmission is another reason humans think so differently from non-human animals. Humans can be warned to react differently to different threats. Climbing a tree might protect you from a stampeding Aurochs, but would only get you killed if you tried it to get away from a leopard. A non-human animal would only get a danger message, where a human could get the danger message, as well as specific information for the specific threat.

This adaptability is another evolutionary advantage. Language-using human groups (language is a group activity) would survive more often than non-language-using ones. Groups capable of sharing complex information would tend to survive more than those only capable of simpler messages. Groups incapable of adapting their language to changing circumstances would suffer more deaths and injuries more often than groups capable of adapting quickly. Language became an evolutionary advantage for groups and societies, where it was not necessarily so for individuals.

The concept of using symbols to represent sounds or ideas is uniquely human, and is the basic building block of modern civilization. Humanity’s long journey to the current level of achievement is divided roughly into two areas: history, and pre-history. This can be better described as the time before record keeping and the time after record keeping. Once humans learned to record what they knew and learned, it became easier for the children and grandchildren to learn the same things. It became easier to avoid making the same mistakes generation after generation, and more and more humans would survive because of this. Writing became the shared memory of humanity in effect, if not in fact. This shared memory made simpler the process of building on the works of those who had gone before.

Pattern-recognition and symbol use are also uniquely human abilities. A large portion of the human brain is dedicated to recognizing patterns, such as the facial features of friends and family. This ability is innate; all undamaged human brains are capable of this. Training can increase the brain’s ability to accomplish this task, but the ability is encoded into the genetic makeup of all humans.

That brings us to modern man. In industrial societies, the evolutionary risks are significantly reduced, so most urban humans aren’t required to use these life-saving mental abilities much. This is not to say that modern life does not have dangers, but the chances of being devoured by a leopard or trampled by a herd of buffalo are pretty much non-existent. Many of the thinking processes used for basic survival by our cave man ancestors can be adapted to the dangers of modern life, but the evolutionary pressure to think consciously and creatively is dramatically reduced.

Thinking is like any other function of the body. Without frequent use, the mental “muscles” get flabby. Early training plays a role as well. If the young humans do not learn how to learn, the part of the brain that controls learning does not work as efficiently as it should. Learning becomes difficult, which in turn means that particular “mental muscle” gets even less use. Unless the individual makes concentrated efforts at exercising this ability, the vicious circle continues and the individual will always have trouble learning. Since thinking coherently and creatively is “hard work” for this type of person, their mental processes get less and less exercise. After all, modern civilization makes it possible for such a person to live to a ripe old age (by historical standards) without having to flex his or her mental muscles much. Many people can (and frequently do) ask themselves, “Why bother?”

Reading, which is an excellent way to fine-tune the brain’s symbol-recognizing skills, is also a fundamental building block of modern civilization. The acts of reading and writing (both of which involve symbol recognition) help stimulate the left hemisphere of the brain, which researchers associate with rational thought, logic, mathematics, and science. However, reading is losing favor as a pastime among many people in the United States. Children in particular are reading less in this country, to the point of possible deleterious effects on the learning centers. Furthermore, reading the works of others helps the reader learn proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. Readers are often learning while they read, which in turn helps develop the brain’s ability to learn.

This widespread disinterest in learning and the steadfast refusal by many people in industrial countries to exercise their brains continues because there are few penalties exacted for these actions. During the evolution of our species, an individual’s refusal to learn frequently meant that individual was more likely to be killed. Modern life has removed many of those hazards. The most common hazards in industrial societies are social, not physical. People in industrial nations are rarely forced to think clearly or die.

Even the few actively dangerous tasks common to most people in industrialized countries (such as driving) often fail to force people to engage their mental muscles. Driving is dangerous, even in a well-policed and relatively civilized country like the United States. Drivers should actively concentrate their mental energies on the dangerous tasks involved in driving a car. All too often, however, drivers essentially “shut off” their concentration while attempting the dangerous task of driving to and from work. Many people arrive at work or at home and have no memory of the intervening road trip. The fact that they survived the trip in such a semi-conscious state is a tribute to the skills of the drivers around them, trained reflexes, and blind luck. If our Paleolithic ancestors had tried this suicidal trick while hunting cave bears, it might have been humans and not cave bears that became extinct.

Modern humans rarely need to think creatively or critically. Technological and social progress over the last twenty millennia have permitted many humans to survive being utter fools. The end result is a profusion of fuzzy thinking, a decline in interest in learning, and a general distrust of intellectual pursuits such as reading. Poor thinking skills are rarely considered social liabilities. In fact, creative or critical thinking themselves are often considered social liabilities. People who question common wisdom, display curiosity about the world around them, or even appear to be smarter than their friends and neighbors are frequently dismissed as “nerds”, “geeks”, or “bookworms”- all of which have negative social connotations.

This disinterest in learning and thinking is all the more surprising because everyone thinks critically every day. The process is so nearly automatic that many people do not recognize it as such. This thinking process is by nature a personal one. Different people will make different choices, depending on personal inclination and background. There is a commonality to the process that bears examining, however. The thought process is normally either automatic or nearly so. The person doing the thinking is often unaware of the sequence of thoughts and memories that make up the decisions in everyday life.

For example, on approaching several co-workers at the water cooler at work and hearing them gossiping about the boss, some people would identify the hazards (the gossip might get back to the boss, the boss might see a group chatting around the water cooler and get upset, etc), asses the dangers of the situation (if the boss hears the gossip, he might/might not get angry. If the boss gets angry, he might/might not take the anger out on the gossipers, etc), decide not to get involved due to the risk of repercussions, and make haste to get a drink and get away from the water cooler to avoid being dragged into a no-win situation. Other people might decide that the fun of talking down the boss is worth the risks and stay to gossip, while still others might completely ignore the potential hazards due to a misunderstanding of the situation.

The people in the example are all thinking about the situation. Their decisions (to gossip or not) are based on a nearly unconscious assessment of the situation and its potential hazards. It is the fact that the person making the decision is not consciously aware of the decision-making process that contributes most to the negative connotations associated with intellectual pursuits. Even when people are shown the facts about everyday use of critical thinking, the most common response is to downplay the significance of the act. This suspicion of the thinking process is one of the primary reasons that many people do not think well when they do think.

At birth, the vast majority of humans are equipped with the requisite mental capacity for creative and coherent thought. Their family and school life (along with social pressures from peers) will serve to amplify or reduce these native abilities during their formative years, which often have profound effects on later life. Some people are equipped by temperament or background to break themselves free of the template of their early learning experiences, but most lack the will to make such profound efforts to effect change in their mental life. Those whose home life and school life served to amplify their learning and thinking abilities often find themselves cut off from the bulk of humanity by their mental abilities, because people who lack the inclination to think well frequently resent those who do think clearly and creatively. Attempts to bridge the gap often fail due to frustration by both groups.

Thinking creatively and critically is the birthright of every human. The ability to think consciously, to focus concentration on thoughts or ideas is a skill which must be learned and constantly practiced to be effective. Allowing the mental “muscles” to atrophy is a fool’s easy way out. The ability to think clearly and creatively has been a survival trait throughout the evolution of humanity. This has not changed with the advent of advanced technology and specialization. Even in the technological wonderland in which we live, humans are at risk of someday living or dying solely on the ability to make the right decisions.

Current status: Concerned

Current music: Fields of Fire by Big Country

Got Change?

17 10 2011

There used to be a BBC radio program called, “My Word“. This was a panel game about words, featuring a regular panel of people who made a living with words, but was really more of a vehicle for Frank Muir and Dennis Norden to display their wit to a large audience. The show is still available- in reruns, of course- on NPR in some markets. Due to the timing of the re-broadcasts (at noon on Saturdays here in the Shallow South), I have managed to hear most of the shows while the wife and I do our weekly shopping.

Many BBC programs get stolen and modified for the American market (The Office is a recent example, and Sanford and Son is a more antiquated one), but I doubt anyone would ever try to adapt My Word. Without exception, the panelists on the show were extremely knowledgeable on the subject, and this alone dramatically decreases the likelihood of a successful adaptation. While it may be possible to find American writers and thinkers who are equally adept with language, vocabulary, and etymology, I find it hard to believe that any American academics who qualify would have the ability to demonstrate it with the easy humor of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. Then, too, there is the real possibility that any putative literary wit would be completely unable to make the average American audience laugh, given the generally dismal level of American education.

This depressing thought brought me to a realization about the enormous cultural divides so visible in the US today. Among the many artificial divisions in American society (black vs white, north vs south, east vs west, coke vs pepsi, etc), a far more subtle division is growing: tolerance of change.

The US has long been a major source of what are frequently world-shaking changes, so it seems odd that so many in this country now want the changes to stop. America is built on change, and our scientists, inventors, engineers, and salesmen have mass-produced that change and sold it to the whole world. Our current leadership position in many scientific fields is based upon anticipating and exploiting change. We owe our extravagant lifestyle and standard of living to embracing change, but now there is an increasingly vocal minority in this country who are demanding an end to change. Worse, they are deliberately trying to roll back many of the changes that make their standards of living possible.

Some of this resistance to change is coming- as usual- from religious extremists. Religion in general basically says that certain things are beyond human ken, and people should spend all their time and energy preparing for some sort of afterlife in lieu of improving conditions here and now. Despite the available evidence, the religious extremists refuse to admit that their holy texts might be wrong, because to admit the possibility of error opens the door for questions the religiously deluded are incapable of answering. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” does not allow for differences of opinion (or evidence to the contrary), so the religious types can almost be counted upon to be intolerant of change.

Another group intolerant of change are those who aren’t willing to expend the energy required to learn how to cope with- and profit from- the rapid pace of change. Granted that many of these could also be religiously deluded, this is not universally the case. Part of the problem is the fact that the stupefying complexity of our universe can only be properly described using purely mathematical terms, and the bulk of these change-resistant people think that algebra is some sort of magic trick designed to make them look stupid. The upper-level maths needed to properly describe the universe and how it works might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs, as far as the people I’m describing are concerned. User-friendly scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are very helpful in trying to explain the nature of reality in everyday language, but only if the target audience is willing to listen. Too many are not willing to listen, and they end up resentful of those who are increasing the amount and pace of change. They also end up increasingly resentful of anyone who- unlike them- is comfortable with change.

So we end up with another artificial division, this time between those who are willing to adapt to change and those who are not. Those who are unwilling to adapt clamor foolishly for a return to a golden age which never actually existed, and decry the “decadence” of those who embrace changing times. The change-intolerant, with their rose-tinted 20/20 hindsight, never seem to realize that the “good old days” never really were all that good, and the “golden age” they pine for is nothing more than 24-carat gold-plated wishful thinking and selective memories.

Every new set of changes also changes us- how we see ourselves and the universe. For centuries, the Catholic church was philosophically wedded to the idea that Earth (and humanity) was the center of the universe. Church rituals and dogma were all derived from this “fact”, as was the stratified social order the church tried to implement. Small wonder that the leaders of the early Renaissance church were so adamantly opposed to the new evidence that not everything revolved around Earth, humanity, or even the church. Those who had a vested interest in the social order saw these new facts reducing them from the heavenly-annointed center of the universe to just another rock hurtling around a not-particularly-impressive sun in a distant corner of a medium-sized galaxy in an ever-expanding universe. The political ramifications of that one discovery resonate to this day, and the church has been forced to grudgingly admit that they were wrong … eventually. Galileo wasn’t forgiven by the church until almost four hundred years after his death.

A similar firestorm still rages about evolution by natural selection. Despite the mountains of evidence supporting the theory of evolution, millions of people absolutely refuse to accept it. Like all discoveries, this one changes how we see ourselves. It turns out that we are not divinely created in our current forms, but are rather the result of millions of years of natural selection, whose DNA is nearly identical with that of chimpanzees. Instead of being the lords of creation, we’re just a weird, bipedal mammal with a minor genetic quirk that makes our brains work differently. Some people just cannot accept these repeatedly demonstrated facts, because it means they’d have to see themselves as just a hairless plains ape with a damaged gene sequence.

This particular cultural gap is nothing new, of course. Every generation has its radicals and reactionaries. The bulk of the population, as always, will grumble a bit about the pace of change and then get over it. Those who embrace change and try to push it along will chafe at the reins of what they see as indifference by the public at large and continue to push the boundaries of what we know. Those who are unwilling or unable to adapt to change will eventually die out, because the one constant in the human universe is change.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Current status: Sick and tired

Current music: If You Only Knew by Shinedown

Chronic Dumbassery

4 04 2010

Our species has a long history of shooting the messenger, regardless of the actual message being delivered. This is patently contra-survival behavior, but it continues to this day. This is largely due to the predominance of yet another cultural survival trait: Tribalism.

During most of human evolution, certain cultural traits have been selected for as survival-oriented. Foremost among these has been our concepts of self and other. It may be to the individual human’s benefit to think only of himself, but the survival of the species has long depended upon looking outside oneself- to recognize other humans as part of yourself.

The first phase of this manifests as the family group. Individual humans are easy prey for many of the contemporary predators, but the family group gave individual humans a better chance of survival and increased the likelihood of those individual human genes being preserved. The next step above family is the clan- essentially a hugely extended family group or a grouping of related families. With these larger organizations, individuals and the species as a whole had far better chances for survival. A tribe is loosely described as a large grouping of clans- some of which may not be related by blood to other groups. Above the tribe comes the nation, followed by the species as a whole. These are the cultural groupings which enhance human survival during our long evolutionary history.

Evolution- both cultural and physical- selected for humans who could operate- and cooperate- within these groups. For most of our evolutionary history, humans have been divided into clans and tribes. Survival for a tribe often meant conflict with other tribes for resources (flint, hunting grounds, fresh water, etc), and it therefore became imperative for tribe members to be able to identify fellow-tribesmen. Humans in your tribe were basically extensions of self, and everyone else was other.

This cultural evolution continued for thousands of years, impressing the tribalism trait deeply into human genetics. Only in the past three or four thousand years have we- as a species- started to rise above tribalism into the larger cultural organization of the nation-state. Unfortunately, the human predisposition toward tribalism all too often overwhelms the social and cultural benefits of the nation-state. Tribalism might almost be classified as an instinct, which can only be overcome by actively using the higher mental functions of reason and analysis. Humans who make the effort to understand and appreciate the benefits of belonging to a larger society and culture can leave behind the predisposition towards tribalism. Those who cannot strive to undo the underpinnings of the nation-state and revert to simple tribalism. These humans are capable of applying rational analysis toward their situation, but are unwilling to do so. Because it takes effort- mental effort. This is frequently unfamiliar and difficult to the tribalists.

Back to shooting the messenger. When a member of an individual’s higher sociocultural grouping tries to change the way that society works, the tribalists automatically revert to looking at him as other. Other has always been associated with a threat to the tribe (In many languages, the words for stranger and enemy were identical during our tribal pre-history). Regardless of whether or not the changes would be good for the larger society or even the individual human tribalist, the easy way to respond to this other has always been violence.

And so it was forty two years ago today. For all his human frailties and faults, the changes Dr. King proposed were and are better for our nation and for individual Americans. But the tribalists among us could not see beyond the simplistic “one … two…  many” thought processes of the tribe and reacted violently to those changes. The fact that Dr. King was right in almost every detail only made the tribalists even angrier and more violent, and so he was shot down by one of his fellow Americans for daring to suggest that people be judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin.

In the intervening four decades, we, the People, have come a long way in many ways, but the violent, xenophobic tribesmen are still among us. They rant and rave and demand that the clock be turned back to a mythical better day. They strive- sometimes unconsciously- to break the bonds that tie us together as a nation so they can get back to a tribe of like-minded barbarians. Their lack of understanding of the consequences of their chosen path makes them no less dangerous- both to the culture as a whole and to individual Americans. They must be opposed at every turn by everyone who understands and appreciates the benefits of being Americans. We have to stop these barbarians from shooting the messenger.

Because good messengers are too valuable to waste. And their messages are worth hearing- regardless of whether or not we like them at the time.

Early morning, April 4, a shot rings out in the Memphis sky.

Free at last, they took your life, but they could not take your pride.”

Current status: Somber

Current music: 1901 by Phoenix

Why does God need a starship?

12 08 2008

Humans have a series of deeply-ingrained reflexes as a result of our evolution. Most of the standard ethical beliefs (those held by every existing culture) are the result of this physical and cultural evolutionary process. If human mentation was not such a conscious process, these reflexes could convincingly be described as instincts. Most of the time, our conscious control of reflexive behavior is a good thing- it allows us to make (slightly) better decisions when the fight-or-flight reflex kicks in, for example. We can also (most of the time) control our natural primate curiosity under certain conditions.

A good example of nearly-universal human reflex behavior could be called the “Awwwwwwwww” reflex. At some point in our evolutionary background, it became a survival mechanism for humans to enjoy cute and cuddly creatures- even those of different species. Most humans like seeing puppies at play, for example. Note that there are a variety of theories about why this might have been a survival benefit which I won’t get into at the moment. Note also that this is not entirely universal among humans- just nearly so.

One reflexive human behavior which needs no great feat of logic to understand is the almost-atavistic urge to protect children. All successful human societies are based (at their core) on the premise, “Women and children first“. This is because individual humans have been physiologically and culturally indoctrinated to sacrifice themselves to preserve the species. This primal reflex is the basis for all morality. Women and children are any society’s only hope for survival. Morals derive from the instinct to survive. Moral behavior is survival behavior beyond the individual level.

All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly, which can—and must—be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a “perfect society” on any foundation other than “Women and children first!” is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly—and no doubt will keep on trying.- RAH

This is why those who prey upon children are so (justifiably) loathed- they have broken one of the basic compacts upon which society is based: Women and children first! Any creature so damaged as to violate this basic premise cannot be trusted to adhere to any of society’s fundamental principles. They are acting in a way that damages the survival potential of the group.

That brings me to the point of this particular rant. It seems that yet another group of religious wombats have crossed the line into counter-survival activities in the name of their imaginary friend. A christian fringe group called “1 Mind Ministries”, based in Baltimore, apparently starved a 19-month-old boy to death because he refused to say “amen” after dinner one night. According to the group’s imaginary friend, that made the child a demon, who had to be punished by withholding food and water. When the child died, the group’s leader claimed that “God would resurrect him” and kept the body around until it started to stink. At that point, the Leader burned the child’s clothing and the mattress on which the body had been placed, and the carcass was unceremoniously placed in a green suitcase- which was apparently sprayed with deodorant from time to time. Where was the boy’s mother during all of this? She meekly accepted the Word of God and held her son as he died. Nice of her.

A cynic might imagine that the decision to avoid medical care and hide the remains might have been motivated by more than religious fervor- such as the fact that the boy’s grandparents were filing suit to get custody of the child at around the time he died.

These people- all of the supposed “adults” in this religious group- have crossed the line. They have irrevocably broken one of humanity’s most fundamental survival rules in the Name of their Invisible Angry Skyman and his Jewish Zombie Offspring.  Their continued existence is a threat to the safety and well-being of all humans, everywhere. Yes, this sweeping statement specifically includes the boy’s so-called “mother”, despite the grandparents claim that she had been led astray by the “cult”.

Hey, grandma and grandpa! I have a clue for you: anyone who allows their 19-month-old child to be starved to death has not been “led astray”. She had to have been a willing participant in the death of her child. As such, she deserves death.

I doubt anyone with religious beliefs reads anything I write. If you are reading this and happen to be religious, ask yourself why your God or Gods allow this sort of thing to happen. Ask yourself why your priest/pastor/rabbi says or does what he/she does- is it because their imaginary friend told them to do so?
If your God or Gods are supposed to be so much better than mere humans, why does his/their actions so closely resemble the worst in humanity? Why is so much unadulterated Evil committed in the name of your imaginary-friend-of-choice?

For everyone else, ask yourself, “Why do we permit these lunatics to continue with their patently contra-survival behavior?” Every religious text I have ever read is filled with the most despicable acts committed by, for, in the name of, or at the request of some deity or another. When will we- as a species- throw off the yoke of superstitions which demand we act in ways that undermine our civilization? To paraphrase a certain rug-wearing actor in a horrible movie, “Why does God need a starship?

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Squirrel Songs II by Foamy

On the Origin of the Feces

30 06 2008

On the 1st day of July in 1858, members of the Linnean Society– a fellowship of amateur naturalists and biologists- met and heard the results of two naturalists’ work: Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin had independently come to the conclusion that species evolved over time as a result of natural selection.

This was not the bombshell most people today seem to believe. The reading of both mens’ works took quite a long time (Darwin had been compiling notes for two decades), and the membership left slightly stunned by the sheer amount of information. Outside of those interested amateurs and the two principals (neither of whom were present), no one seemed to notice.

All that changed a year later when Darwin completed the work for which he is best known: On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. Darwin had deliberately written the book to be understandable to the average person- unusual at a time when most such works were written in elaborate technical jargon indecipherable by any but those with a lifetime of study on the subject. This “popular” format (although modern readers are frequently dismayed at the wordiness common to the era) allowed Darwin to present his research to a vastly wider audience- ensuring (he thought) a healthy debate. Debate there certainly was, but healthy is not a good description.

We may justifiably refer to this milestone in scientific progress as the Origin of the Feces. The religious authorities of the day, until then secure in their positions as arbiters of the Human Condition, rapidly devolved into their chimp-like ancestors and began hurling excrement at the book, the ideas within, and Charles Darwin. It would be lovely to think that he had his shining moment before the Inquisitors where he could let slip a great quote like Galileo (“nonetheless, it still moves“), but Darwin wisely retired behind a screen of enthusiastic supporters and let his work do the arguing for him. The arguments culminated in a famous debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford, which ended in a draw on points. Strategically, however, the debate was a win for science, because science was now increasingly seen as the authority on the natural world, supplanting religion.

Due to the nature of the book and the arguments and ideas within, Darwin and Russell’s revolutionary idea rapidly swept the scientific community around the world. One hundred and fifty years of observation and testing have verified and confirmed evolution and natural selection as a viable scientific theory. Genetics, the discovery of DNA, and the developing resistance of many bacteria to antibiotics (among other things) have all served to confirm this theory. Evolution and natural selection have met the scientific standard for accuracy.

But that just isn’t good enough for some people. The philosophical descendants of the religious authorities of Darwin’s day are still squeezing out dung and hurling it at all and sundry. To no one’s surprise, these chimp-like creatures are all deeply religious (although I hesitate to call most of them deep). Completely immune to logic, reason, and evidence, these mentally-devolved primates have decided that a bunch of desert-dwelling ungulate-herders figured the whole thing out a couple of thousand years ago. Any deviation from the beliefs of those long dead, barely-literate nomads is heresy. One wonders how often the modern religious whackjobs stone their children to death for failure to observe the Sabbath, but that would be a digression.

By itself, the rantings of the mentally-devolved followers of a semitic storm god would be of little import to scientific endeavors. Unfortunately, these devolved simians gather in large groups to collectively throw their excrement, and their chattering and screeching and feces-hurling is very distracting to slightly more evolved primates .. such as politicians.

Most politicians are incapable of thinking of anything past their next election, so the distracting antics of the feces-flingers makes the politicians try desperately to shut them up and make them go away. And so it is that the retarded ideas of semi-sentient religious shitslingers is making a serious bid to derail scientific research.

In a rational world, science would be left to scientists. A world where people like Pat Robertson is considered politically influential is not rational. So the shrieking and chattering of the devolved chimpanzees is taking the place of reasoned debate, and the hair-mantled, flint-hurling australopithicenes who constitute the religious extremists have become the barbarians at our gates. In the name of their non-existent deity, these vermin would have the rest of the country turn back the scientific clock and deny the evidence in favor of evolution by natural selection. Because it makes them feel bad.

If you wish to follow a religion made up by desert-dwelling animal herders a few thousand years ago, be my guest. If you want to believe that a Jewish zombie will save your soul, knock yourself out. If you want to deny the demonstrable facts of evolution, I say- go for it. But you have no right to force the rest of the planet to deny reality in the name of your Angry Invisible Skyman.

Of course, hoping for such reasonable behavior is illogical. The religious australopithicenes among us cannot successfully argue against the scientific evidence, so all scientific evidence must be deemed heretical and silenced. In lieu of arguing on the evidence and the scientific method, the religiously indignant resort to screaming and hurling their dung at any who dare gainsay them. These luddites do not belong in a civilized society. They apparently long for the mythical “good old days” of the 1950s … or maybe the 1350s, and are willing to drag the rest of us down into the abyss with them.

I declare these people to be my enemies, and the enemies-general of all men, to be dealt with as wolves are. They are a threat to our modern, technological civilization. We cannot allow the religiously deranged among us to destroy what has taken millennia to develop. They must be stopped at every turn.

Remember the Four Boxes? There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty in the following order: Soap, Ballot, Jury, and Ammo.

Since the religious fuckwits I mention are a minority- even among their co-religionists- we can defeat them using the first three boxes. Do not permit them to spew their luddite hatred without opposition. Speak up and counter their venom with evidence and reason. Vote them out of office at every opportunity- their religion has no place in public policy. Sue the bastards when they try to force their beliefs upon others. We must oppose them before they gain the political power to suppress and drive underground all dissent. Once they succeed in this, our only option will be that fourth box.

Once we resort to that fourth box, the fecal material will definitely encounter the oscillating atmosphere agitation device.

Current status: Perturbed

Current music: Mandelbrot Set by Jonathan Coulton