The human species – a naturalist conjecture

One question still unanswered in biology and one that is of special interest to me is what happened to our evolutionary branch that made us so different than our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree, the chimpanzees and bonobos? Putting aside supernatural explanations as well as wild speculation about aliens doing genetic experiments on our race as something to do while taking a break from construction of the pyramids, the correct explanation will be provided by science.

An excellent article on the Smithsonian’s webpage states that the difference between our DNA and our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree is about 1.5%.  It is within this difference that the mutations that make us uniquely human are most likely to found.  There are various conjectures at this point but the one that rings the most true to me comes from a talk given by Dr. Brian Thomas Swimme which I was fortunate to stumble across a few years ago. The narrative goes something like this:

When you compare human infants and chimpanzee infants the similarities are striking.  As they develop, like most mammals, the young enter a period of play and exploration necessitating a constant eye on them by the mother and the extended family.  This period of play by young mammals is observable in all other species of mammals such as dogs, cats, bears lions, and even Orcas. In most mammals this period is short lived compared to humans, even in species that have comparative lifespans to ours.  Soon after this phase in most other mammals the genetic programs kick in and the adult forms emerge complete with the physique and skills necessary to be lion, or a chimp or any other adult mammal.  Not so with the human.  It appears that the genetic programs that are activated in our closest and most distant cousins are not activated in humans.  We retain a lot of the physical and mental features we had in childhood and adolescence.  How might this be explained and what are the implications for us as humans?

There is a set of genes called the Hox genes which control the rate of development in animals.  The conjecture is that there was a mutation or a series of mutations in the Hox genes in humans which resulted in the slowing down of our development. While most species’ young stay in that playful and explorative phase for a brief time, humans in many ways never develop out of it.  We retain that wonder and drive to explore our surroundings throughout our entire lives.  In other words, compared to other mammals, members of our species never completely ‘grow up’ and the genetic programs that kick in to make a Chimpanzee a Chimpanzee never kick in for the human.  As Swimme speculates, there are profound meanings for us if this is the case.  We retain that wonder and, as we mature, it changes into a desire to know and understand. We retain that playfulness and our desire to play and enjoy ourselves still fills us with longing.   There are also other implications to this.  When the genetic programs kick in to transform a tiger cub into an adult tiger all the necessary knowledge and skills are included.  No one has to teach a tiger how to be a tiger; the DNA does that.  In humans, this is not so. The adult genetic programs, specifically the ones telling us ‘how to adult’ never get turned on.  What does this mean?  In a very real sense it means that humans don’t know what they should do.  Lions and tigers and bears don’t suffer from the search for meaning and purpose, a search that seems to have afflicted humans throughout our history.

It is an interesting conjecture that, on the face of it, seems to point in the direction to where our uniqueness as a species can be found.  I’m hopeful that I will still be alive when the conjecture becomes theory.

Review: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Taunton

I had read a lot of vitriol from the secular community regarding this book and made a point of re-reading Hitch-22 since Taunton referenced it in his opening description of Christopher Hitchens. So armed I was looking forward to reading it to see if all the ruckus was justified. As it turns out, the book is rather anti-climactic. There is nothing in the book that would lead one to think there was any deathbed conversion. I have respect for Taunton insofar as any discussions of conversion he writes about is no different than what one would hear from any believer contemplating the death of a non-believing friend who, during the time they were alive, had philosophical and religious discussions about faith and belief and fervently hoped for a last minute change of mind. The book centers on a trip through the Shenandoah Valley after a debate that Taunton had moderated and a subsequent trip after the debate that Hitchens and Taunton had in Billings Montana. I would recommend watching the debate between Hitchens and Taunton which is freely available on YouTube.

Most apologists are guilty of causal simplification in their arguments against unbelievers and Taunton is no exception. This should preach well to his followers to which this book is very clearly directed. For the unbeliever and/or the fan of Hitchens this book does have something to offer and I’d recommend reading it if for only these two reasons. If you are looking for a compendium of tired old canards and jingoist slogans against atheists this book is for you; you’ll not find a better one. The other and more important reason is to see the paucity of Taunton’s thinking which is representative of the sort of mind that finds Taunton’s sophistry impressive. It is readily apparent Taunton is quite pleased with himself and his conclusions which makes one feel a bit obligated to extend a degree of pity towards him.

Taunton takes Hitchens’ expression of “keeping two sets of books” and accuses Hitchens of doing the same thing both in his movement from the Left to the Right and his subsequent support of the Iraq war and his desire to spend time with Taunton (they genuinely liked each other) to find out what Taunton believed and why. Taunton assumes that it is not possible to possess a mind that allows facts to change your opinions over time about your beliefs, even deeply held ones. One cannot sit in the pew every week making the outward professions of faith while at the same time holding doubts about certain tenets of one’s faith and working through these issues in one’s mind, according to Taunton’s thinking. You either believe or you don’t. Questioning is what Taunton would have you believe is “keeping two sets of books” and he accuses Hitchens of doing exactly that. While publically being a firebrand atheist up to his passing, Taunton interprets Hitchens desire to understand his friend’s thinking as evidence that Hitchens was himself “keeping two sets of books” and furthermore was evidence that Hitchens was really considering converting in much the same way Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s younger brother, converted later on in life. Anyone who has read Hitchens would see through this in an instant. A more apt example of what Hitchens considered “keeping two sets of books” would be Ted Haggard, the anti-homosexual preacher who lost everything when his long time homosexual relationships and drug usage were exposed.

As I write this review I am reading an article about Taunton resigning from his position as director of the Fixed Point Foundation after being confronted with allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with two young women on the ministry staff, according to sources familiar with the situation. If true, hopefully this will correct Taunton’s misunderstanding about what “keeping two sets of books” actually means.

Life does begin at conception – a secular view

A recent article from Newsweek was making the rounds in social media this week reporting on the new strategic draft issued by the Department of Health and Human services.  The draft includes language that defines life as beginning at conception.

“HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.”

The comments on this article were cleanly divided across ideological lines: those against abortion considered this a major victory while those for abortion considered this a major setback. It is neither and that debate seems to be nothing more than a red herring at best. I think the science is quite clear: life, whether it is human or otherwise, does begin at conception.  Once the egg and the sperm fuse the resulting DNA is human DNA which, for those of us who have their worldview informed by science, is the sine qua non of being human.  The DNA is unique to the developing embryo and will stay just as unique throughout the entire gestational period until the mother gives birth. The mother and the child are separate and equal both in fact and, as I will argue, under the law.

The anti-abortion argument goes something like this:  if you grant that the child is a child from the moment of conception (granted) then aborting the child at any point along the timeline spanning conception to birth is murder since you are taking a human life. It follows then that we should legislate according to this understanding since our laws consider murder a capital crime and our legal system, rather than aiding and abetting this, should be consistent in outlawing and prosecuting those who engage in this practice as they would any other individual or group who commits murder.  The question is, does this argument follow from granting personhood and the subsequent legal rights that personhood entails in our society to the developing child?  My contention is that it does not.

What the understanding that life begins at conception does do is grant both the mother and the child equal rights under the law. This is what logically follows, not the idea that the ending of the child’s life is murder anymore than the death of a mother due to complications while carrying a child to term is murder.  In a secular society that follows the rule of law, we are all considered equal under the law.  If we are all considered equal, including the developing child, then no one, including the developing child, has the right to use anyone else’s body for any reason, including survival, without that person’s consent. That is the proper legal stance that government should hold and should base it’s legislation on.  Given this understanding, the decision whether to have or to not have an abortion is left with the mother, her conscience and her doctor’s advice.

Review: Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”
― Christopher Hitchens

I started to read Larry Taunton’s book, “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” and he begins the book by painting a picture based on “Hitch 22”, Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography. Having read “Hitch 22” when it first came out I was struck how the impressions that Taunton was getting and the seemed importance he was assigning to them were not jibbing with my recollections so I decided to re-read Hitchens’ book.

Aside from the pedestrian account of his upbringing which will interest Hitchens’ fans, both friend and foe alike will be interested in his narration of his move from the ‘Left’ to the ‘Right’ as he witnessed the events in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and the Middle East unfolding. As I write this a secular revolution is happening in Iran. The youth are taking to the streets, demonstrating against the Mullahs, burning Korans and Hijabs and demanding democratic elections, in short demanding a secular government and society that affirms the preeminence of the secular values espoused by Paine, Jefferson and Madison. These are the same ideas that motivated our revolution here in America, the only revolution still standing in the world. These are the same ideals that inspired the countries of Eastern Europe to tear down the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain and are now inspiring the young in Iran. Unfortunately it appears the United States has turned it’s back on the world and the ideals it once stood for and exported around the world and has embraced nationalism and populism. I fear our revolution and the nascent one in Iran may be in grave jeopardy and I’d like to think Hitchens would feel the same way.

Now on to Larry Taunton’s book……..

Thoughts on accountability in this life and the next

A question was asked of atheists on Quora recently to explain how they felt about the “void of justice” if no one is held accountable in the next life for the evil they did in this life. This is usually asked as a corollary in the kettle logic arguments employed against atheists.  Many serial killers, we are told,  have a long life and a peaceful passing surrounded by loved ones, never being brought to justice for their crimes.  The crooked financial advisor who bilked grandma and grandpa out of their life savings retired on a yacht in the Caribbean with his ill gotten gains without a care or worry in the world.  Whoever it was that stole your dog ‘Bosco’ when you were in the 2nd grade really did get away with it.  There will be no comeuppance for them because there is no afterlife in which a comeuppance would happen according to the atheist. In fact, nothing will ever happen to them according to atheists. Ever.  They got away with it and that’s that, according to the unbeliever. I mean, the nerve.

The serial killer example is the most often employed presumably because it is thought to add the most moral heft to the question. When I hear this, and I hear it often, I like to think I know how Huxley felt when he turned to his friend and said “the Lord hath delivered him into mine hands” as he rose to answer Bishop Wilberforce’s question about his ancestry.   I’ll get to Huxley’s answer in a moment.

My retort to this question is always the same:  This question should be asked of the Christian, not the atheist, for this is what the Christian believes.  The serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, also know as the Milwaukee Cannibal, became a born again Christian while in prison before he was killed by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver. Dahmer confessed and was convicted of murdering 17 young men some of which he sexually abused and cannibalized.  If the Christian’s doctrine is to be believed then Dahmer’s conversion insured his immediate entrance into heaven.  What of sis accountability for his unspeakable crimes?  According to the Christian, he has none.

I challenge you to come up with a more pernicious and amoral idea than this. Once this is believed all that remains is convincing oneself that the one who sits on the throne of heaven is now the coxswain of one’s life to guarantee first place in the race to the bottom of the moral cesspool.  Christopher Scarver, after he had beaten Dahmer and another inmate to death with a pipe, returned to his cell and informed a prison guard: “God told me to do it.”  Life, it seems, has it’s own sense of irony, both for serial killers and kettle logic apologists.

It takes intellectual courage to accept the life we live is the only life we have and to understand that justice, if it is to be found at all, is to be found in this life. Rather than being an impetus, the idea that there is a future comeuppance in a world to come saps the vim and vigor of our efforts to ensure justice in this life. “Don’t worry, God will right all the wrongs.” To think in such a way engenders apathy towards injustice and allows one to be a silent witness to the most horrific and barbarous acts against our fellow man.  It is the creed of the coward.

In their famous debate on evolution it is said Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asked T.H. Huxley, who was given the name “Darwin’s Bulldog”, whether he traced his ancestry from apes through his paternal or maternal grandmother. Huxley turn to his friend and whispered what I related to you earlier, rose and responded, “I would rather be a man descended from two apes than be a man who is afraid of the truth.”





Review: When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time

When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time
When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One would think that “page turner” and “Permian mass extinction” are mutually exclusive but one would be wrong. This is a fascinating book which, at the very least, will get you to schedule a trip to the nearest museum to view the fossils they have on display. What you will learn about fossils and the history of paleontology will make those “dead bones” come to life. The story of how paleontologists and other scientists who study the past came to understand the extinction events that have shaped life on this planet is told by someone who participated in many of the discoveries and debates and it is told well. The discussion and tying together of the different themes which led up to and caused the Permian extinction is a rather sobering one given the changes we are seeing around the world today. This book will inform your thinking long after you finish it.

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