The Evolution of Morality

30 10 2006

The NYT has an interesting article about a theory that I’ve always thought to be true (but now has, you know, evidence).  Actually, I would say my opinion was heavily swayed by Howard Bloom’s book, The Lucifer Principle.

What we think of as good and evil – the basis for the modern understanding of morality – is for a large part decided by natural selection.  There are many reasons why we don’t go around killing each other, not the least of which is that what’s good for the group is generally good for the individual.   This is not because God said so, but because we have learned that the group can help us, protect us – and we should therefore protect it.  Mr. Bloom goes into much greater detail and cites countless scientific studies to back up his claim that what we would call good and evil are in fact the by-products of some evolved trait.  I highly recommend the book.

This also goes to dispute the claim that mankind needs religion to act morally.  We have evolved to who we are because it works – it seems a blatantly obvious thing to say, but it is something that many people (because of their taught reverence for religion) have never considered.


The Death of a President

27 10 2006

To my surprise, us Americans actually get the chance to see this movie – I thought for sure that a certain you know who would not allow it – probably classify it as an enemy combatant or something.

 An unknown gunman assassinates George W. Bush. A couple of years later, an investigative documentary is made. It features all the people involved that fateful day: the protestors outside a Chicago hotel; the suspects in the shooting and their families; the Secret Service men who failed to protect their charge; the press; and an array of experts, desperately seeking meaning in this horrible act of violence. We learn, agonizingly, what happened to America after the death of a president.

For those locals among us, it is playing at Tivoli.  For showtimes regardless of your location, follow this link.

The Evolution of Religion

26 10 2006

Richard Dawkins discusses applying Darwinism to religion.  He says that religion is not a product of natural selection but a by-product.  He gives the example of a moth who flies into the candle flame and burns to a crisp.  We could ask, ‘why did the moth evolve to commit suicide?  What’s the benefit?’  A closer look at the situation reveals that the moth did not evolve to commit suicide.  The countless moth deaths are a by-product of an evolved trait.  Moths use light from stars and the moon to navigate at night.  If they keep the light from the moon at a 30 degree angle in their eye, they will fly straight.  A candle on the other hand (because of its proximity) forces them into a spiral that inevitably ends in their premature demise.

In this way, Dawkins asserts that religion is not the result of a process of natural selection, but a side effect (those are my words, not his).  He suggests that natural selection has made it so that young children take their elders seriously.  This is because a lot of what humans do is build on the experiences of those that came before us.  As a child you were probably told the iron was hot – and so you didn’t touch it.  You may also have been told that ‘god loves you’.  Since the child brain is equipped so that it learns things from its parents (like not to touch the iron) it is unable to distinguish between useful advice and bullshit.  Hence, religion is a by-product of our intuitive sense to listen to our parents.

 Dawkins sees this as one of many possible explanations for his ‘religion as by-product theory’.  The theory is astounding, the explanation is fascinating. 

But why, you ask, must religion be a by-product?  Why can’t it be a product?  Simply enough, biologically speaking, it has no use.  In fact it is even detrimental at times.  Think of all the time you waste performing ceremonies – valuable time you might use to gather food.  Not to mention martyrs. 

Additionally, Paul Bloom suggests that, “we are innately predisposed to be creationists.”  A child’s mind doesn’t grasp the big picture (a skill which results from intellectual and scientific thinking).  A child assigns a purpose to everything, for example  ‘clouds are for raining’ and ‘pointy rocks are so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy’.  This is called teleology.  One can easily see that someone who suffers from teleology would be easily disposed to religion. 

We are prone to take what is called the intentional stance.  This is something that has arisen because it has the ability to save our lives.  It’s a shortcut to assessing something’s danger.  Instead of looking at a tiger and analyzing what it is capable of doing with its sharp claws and teeth and then deciding on an appropriate course of action, we look at the intention of the tiger.  Its intention is to eat us, so we flee immediately, without having to analyze all the parts individually.  (Dawkins goes through the other orders of stances, physical stance and design stance)

Because we are predisposed to assign intention to objects, we also sometimes find it hard to not look for agents behind things.  An icicle falls from the eve of a house and hits you on the head.  Probably your first instinct is to get mad at the icicle.  The icicle wasn’t acting intentionally, and you know that, but it doesn’t stop you from placing blame.   

These are sort of bastardized, lazy, half-assed explanations of Dawkins’ eloquent text.  But here’s my point –

When speaking of religion, not any specific religion, but religion as a concept – theists like to point out that every society has made a religion, so that it must be something that we need, it must fill some hole in our culture. 

But when you consider the evolutionary forces at work – it is easy to see that perhaps religion is nothing but a by-product of things that have helped us survive as a species.  There is no spiritual hole that we need to find a plug to.  All we are is victims of our own evolutionary waste.

When one understands that religion is not divine in origin, but can be explained using the same theory that explains why we have opposable thumbs – it is far easier to see just how ridiculous individual religions are.

In any case, read the book, it’s better at this than me.

Edgy Eft

26 10 2006

Ubuntu 6.10 (Edgy Eft) was released today and it has some great upgrades over Dapper Drake.  You can download it here.

 For those of you not in-the-know, Ubuntu is an operating system for human beings (so they say).  In other words, it is a FREE alternative to Windows.  If you’re used to windows it takes a little getting used to, but if you’re willing to put in the time to understand the differences, I’ve found Ubuntu to be great.

NJ Courts: Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry!

25 10 2006

The NJ Courts today ruled that,

same-sex couples are entitled to “the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex couples under the civil marriage statutes.”

In your face, bigotry!  The court leaves it to the legislature whether these unions would actually be called ‘marriages’ but it gives them six months to enact enabling legislation.  There were some that were unhappy with the ruling however,

Steven Goldstein, the chairman of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality, said the court’s decision was disappointing.

“Those who would view today’s ruling as a victory for same sex couples are dead wrong,” he said. “Half-steps short of marriage — like New Jersey’s domestic-partnership law and also civil union laws — don’t work in the real world.”

I don’t know if I feel the same way.  I don’t know if I understand what the point of not calling them ‘marriages’ is – if it is the exact same thing does it really matter what it is called?  I’m not convinced that it does.  If there is no difference – I’m sure it will upset the bigots just as much as it would if it were called marriage.

Anyway, I view this ruling as a step in the right direction.  Here’s a link to the NYT article.

Human Rights, Schmewman Rights

24 10 2006

BoingBoing had a couple of interesting tidbits:

Wilkerson, Powell’s old chief of staff, believes that the correct number of victims in secret Bush prisons is 35,000, only %5 of which “may” have to do with terrorism. Link.

If this is true – well, I don’t even know what to say if it is true.  Innocent until proven guilty is, evidently, an old wive’s tale.  They don’t even have the chance to prove their innocence since habeus corpus was defenestrated (thrown out the proverbial window).  The United States should not be above the law.  The military commissions act of 2006 ensures that our illegal behavior is legal in our country – but it can not change the fact that a lot of what we do is illegal under international law.  I wish someone would hold us accountable – because it is obvious that we are not holding ourselves to account.  Oh, and speaking of gross human rights violations –

Here is a link to a blog which posts video of human rights violations.

Firefox 2.0

24 10 2006

Firefox 2.0 is now available for download.

It’s free, it’s user friendly, and it’s a hell of a lot better than Internet Explorer.

For Ubuntu users, wait a couple days and the new release of Ubuntu will be available which will come standard with firefox 2.0 – it will automatically update at that time.