Two years ago today the Thinking Meat Project went online, with nothing more than an introductory essay, a reading list, a page of quotes, and a page of links. The blog came up about two weeks after that, in mid-March 2005. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed moral support, ideas, and comments, and to all you regular visitors out there. Long may the meat keep thinking.
This news story is related to some comments in response to the review of the Richard Dawkins book that I posted the other day. The comments have turned to the question of the relationship between religion and aggression, and this press release describes some recent research into that very thing. A psychologist at the University of Michigan led a group that looked at students at Brigham Young University and at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam; a much higher percentage of the BYU students reported a belief in God and in the Bible, as you would expect. The students read a story from the King James Bible describing a nasty incident involving torture, murder, and revenge; some of them were told it came from the Bible but others were told that it came from a scroll found at an archaeological site. For some participants in each of those two groups (the Bible group and the scroll group), the story was augmented with an additional verse about God instructing Israel to chasten its brothers before the Lord. After reading the story, the students paired up for an interactive test that measured aggression (the winner of a competition got to assault the eardrums of the loser with a loud noise, at a volume the winner chose, up to about the volume of a fire alarm).
The results are very interesting. The BYU students displayed more aggression if they thought the story came from the Bible than if they thought it came from some random scroll, and also if they got the extra verse about chastening their brethren. The students from Amsterdam also were more aggressive if they got that extra verse, although they weren’t as strongly influenced as the BYU students by what they thought the source of the story was. (It’s especially interesting that even the non-believers were apparently influenced by that verse about God urging Israel to fight its brothers.) The closing paragraph of the press release discusses what the results of the study might have to do with the roots of religious terrorism.
Of course many people who read the Bible ignore the more violent verses, but there’s a surprising amount of strong language about what God will do to unbelievers even in the supposedly kinder, gentler New Testament. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible lists relevant passages (there’s also an annotated Quran and an annotated Book of Mormom).
Here’s an article from Science Daily about Robert Sapolsky’s research into primate behavior and stress. Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford, has written an excellent book about how humans respond to stress (Why zebras don’t get ulcers), and this article sums up some of his material on how our fight-or-flight response works against us when we’re reacting to psychological rather than physical threats. Basically his point is that while we’ve eliminated or reduced many of the dangers that used to threaten us, our lives haven’t gotten any easier because we’re putting our energy into interacting with each other, often in stressful ways. This article provides a nice overview of some of the things we know about stress and its effects on health and happiness.
You may remember a post from last month about how people estimate a man’s character and guess at his future behavior based on his facial features. Some new research indicates that people’s votes might be influenced by their estimates of a candidate’s character solely as read from his face. A team of psychologists manipulated images of the faces of candidates in eight recent elections in the US, New Zealand, and Great Britain; the modified faces had key features in common with the candidates but were not recognizable as the candidates. Then volunteer subjects were shown the faces in pairs and asked to choose which of the men they would vote for. In all eight cases, the subjects chose the face resembling that of the candidate who won the real election. The researchers also investigated the personality characteristics that the subjects were inferring from the faces. (Note that people didn’t seem to be judging based on conventional attractiveness, but on how they evaluated the man’s personality based on what his face looked like.) This article from the Toronto Star has more info. It’s not clear how much of an effect a candidate’s face has on real elections, but the article points out that even if it’s not a major factor for everyone, it might well be a factor for voters who base their decisions on a gut feeling. Even though faces are highly important to us and we’re creatures who read them well, it’s a little scary to think of people being swayed more by a person’s face than his or her ideas or behavior.
It’s been known for awhile that when we sleep, we process our memories in a way that makes them stronger and better established. Some new research indicates that in addition, we’re better able to see the connections between things we have learned if we have a chance to sleep on it, and to generalize rules and overall themes. This short article from New Scientist gives some more info.
A paper recently published in PLoS Genetics presents evidence that humans and chimps separated into distinct species about four million years ago, a relatively recent estimate for the time of the split. Researchers analyzed the chimp, human, and gorilla genomes using a statistical technique that had not previously been applied to genetics. The four-million-year date doesn’t jibe with some of the fossil evidence we have about the split, so this is obviously a “to be continued” story. You can read about this latest result in this story from Live Science or this article from Reuters. You can also read the entire paper.
A number of books on the theme of faith and reason have been published lately. I just finished one of them, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This book gives a broad view of a number of questions in the faith-and-reason debate, all written with Dawkins’s characteristic style and wit. I enjoyed reading it, and although much of the material was familiar to me, I still feel like I learned a few things.
Dawkins starts out by laying out exactly what sort of God he believes is a delusion–i.e., a supernatural being. Actually, he starts out by describing what he means by “Einsteinian religion”, the use by scientists of religious terminology in a metaphorical or pantheistic sense, because that is not the kind of God he means. He has some good quotes, like this from Einstein, which he used to sum up Einsteinian religion:
“To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”
Or this from Carl Sagan, which explains very nicely the pitfalls of using “religion” or “God” in the sense that Einstein did:
“…if by “God” one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying … it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.”
Dawkins sums up his own views by saying:
“…I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.”
I agree with what Einstein said and I like the way he said it, but, while I wouldn’t word it as strongly as Dawkins does, I can see the value of the point he’s making and I have to reluctantly admit he might be right. I broached this topic with a couple of people who like to think about things like this and it generated some excellent discussion; I’d be interested in hearing other opinions too.
Dawkins describes the God hypothesis–the variety of beliefs that people hold about God, and how (or whether) they try to accommodate these to facts about the world we live in–and gives a brisk run-through of arguments for God’s existence (that’s “run-through” as in “run through wih a sword”, as he gives brief but compelling reviews of the difficulties with each one). There was nothing particularly new and exciting here but I think he did a good job of covering his turf very readably and wittily. He follows this up with an explanation of why there almost certainly is no God.
He devotes a couple of chapters to how we came to be religious animals and to where our sense of right and wrong comes from, discussing human psychology, the possible adaptive value of religion, and memes. (Daniel Dennett covers the origins of religion more thoroughly in his recent book Breaking the spell, by the way, and I list some other books on this topic on the Thinking Meat reading list.)
The chapter on what our moral sense tells us was particuarly interesting. His main point was that whatever people may say about getting their ideas of right and wrong from the Bible, that’s not really the case. The Old Testament is notoriously blood-soaked and violent, and the God depicted there is often morally unsavory to a high degree. (I have long found the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac particularly repugnant, but there are plenty of other stories to make a decent person cringe, and you have perhaps seen the open letter purportedly written to Laura Schlesinger detailing some of the more offensive Biblical injunctions.) Christians who don’t take the advice of the Old Testament literally are using some other moral yardstick by which to measure what they find in the Bible, rejecting the bad and keeping the good–meaning that scripture is not truly the basis for their moral code.
There’s a fair amount of consensus about that moral yardstick that defines good and bad behavior for us, although over time the consensus changes (Dawkins describes each age as having its own “moral Zeitgeist”). Dawkins reported on a study done about 40 years ago by Israeli psychologist George Tamarin that looked at how Israeli children reacted to a passage from the Bible about Joshua and the battle of Jericho, something we might today describe as a massacre. When over a thousand Israeli schoolchildren were asked whether they totally approved, partially approved, or totally disapproved of what Joshua and the Israelites had done in taking over the city of Jericho and slaughtering its inhabitants, 66% totally approved and 26% totally disapproved. When asked to explain their thinking, they gave religious justifications, including statements about the danger of learning bad ways from others of a different religion. (And some of those who disapproved did so on the grounds that property was lost as well as lives, and that property could have been put to good use by the Israelites.) When a smaller control group was given the same story, but with the names and places changed so that it was about a fictitious general who lived in China 3,000 years ago, only 7% totally approved and 75% disapproved. This was a striking and discouraging instance of the influence of religious prejudice on the moral sense of children. (You can read more in this Skeptic paper by John Hartung.)
Dawkins spends a chapter on the dangers of religious fundamentalism (and even moderate religion, he says, provides the climate in which fundamentalism can grow). There is plenty of material available to prove his point; this is ground that Sam Harris covered more thoroughly in The end of faith.
The final chapter is a summary of how life can be full of beauty, meaning, and inspiration despite, or perhaps even because of, an absence of the supernatural. This is also well-trodden ground, but I always relish seeing someone expressing these ideas, especially as beautifully as Richard Dawkins can do it, because in my opinion they cannot be disseminated too widely. He mentions a number of books that you can go to for more in this vein.
Overall I’d say this book is valuable as an overview and a pointer to other resources. He includes a bibliography and a list of organizations that support atheism, humanism, free thought, etc. The list is also available on the web site for the Richard Dawkins Foundatino for Reason and Science. I’ve heard people say that The God Delusion is preaching to the choir, and while it may be well presented and engagingly written, it’s not likely to reach the people who really need to read it. But I wonder if it might be a very useful thing for young people who have had a religious upbringing and are in the process of leaving the religion in which they were raised. I wish this book had been around 24 years ago when I was going through my own struggles with leaving the Catholic church. Maybe there were other books that would have helped and I just didn’t find them, but Dawkins’s excellently and compassionately written summary of the key issues might have eased the transition considerably for me. I hope the book finds its way to other people who might find it similarly useful.
It looks like chimps are more advanced tool users than we had thought. Primatologists have observed chimpanzees turning sticks into spears and using them to hunt other, smaller primates, which is something new in our experience of chimp behavior. Although people tend to think of male primates as the hunters, the animals most often seen hunting were young female chimps, perhaps exploiting an opportunity that requires craft and ingenuity rather than sheer strength. The importance of females in chimp tool use perhaps suggests that human females were just as important in the early evolution of tool use in our species. You can read about this in a news story from the BBC, this story from Live Science, and also in a press release from EurekAlert. Thanks to Doug for passing this one along.