Saturday, April 21, 2018

Caught with the Seed

A tufted titmouse caught with a sunflower seed in his beak. Click to enlarge.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Checking Greed

Humans have a natural tendency to respond to their situation with greed, if conditions are allowable. I don't believe that we are naturally or genetically driven to be greedy—it's more that the conditions we experience can promote it. Western society in particular has become very materialistic. The predominant economic system—capitalism—literally cultivates greed. In a similar fashion, I do not believe that people are inherently violent, but put them in a threatening and uncontrolled environment and violence will emerge. In other words, we have to have greed and violence modeled for us or taught to us, for these insidious emotions to prevail.

There is an alternative to consumption and greed. There is a culture—the longest-lasting human culture on the planet—that successfully checks and limits greed. It is the people often referred to as the Bushmen of South Africa—residents of the austere Kalahari Desert of modern Namibia. The Bushmen consist of several different tribes—pretty much all of which have names that we Westerners find literally unpronounceable, due to their native tongue being what is often referred to as “click languages.”

Bushman society has endured for about 200,000 years—pretty much from when anatomically modern Homo sapiens first came upon the scene. They live extremely simply, in the manner of hunter-gatherers; foraging daily for what their tough environment offers them. It's a struggle for us high-tech, industrialized people to grasp what their culture is like. It's hard for us to grant that—just in terms of longevity—Bushmen societies are the most enduring, successful human civilization ever. Our more modern societies have survived for far less time. 
We transformed from hunter-gatherers to being farmers and/or herders only about 12,000 years ago. We are the new and out-of-control kid on the block. When humans settled into farming communities, we began for the first time to accumulate things. (The Bushmen—frequently on the move—could not afford to stockpile; they had to travel light.) Rather than gather or hunt from nature's offerings as the Bushmen do, farmers planted, harvested, stored, and planted again. This style of existence brought much more food—hence the population grew and crops could be stored and used in trade. But people were now completely dependent on their crops; they were far more vulnerable than the hunter-gatherers, who did not specialize.

Fear and greed surfaced and flourished in farming societies. Fear of crop failures pervaded those societies—along with fear of wild animals that would destroy or consume those crops. In abundant years fear decreased and greed blossomed, as farmers stored their harvests and began to trade them for various material goods.

Bushmen took a different road. They never had an abundance or tried to store it for the future. It never even occurred to them. Nature provided for today and if not tomorrow, they'd simply move on. Their diet consisted of a wide variety of food, so if one thing did poorly, they simply switched to something else. Farmers instead literally had all their agricultural eggs in one basket.

In addition, however, the Bushmen knew that greed had a way of insinuating itself into society, whenever any individuals were able to feel superior to others. Any hint of inequality encourages greed. So the Bushmen developed rituals that kept inequality, and thus greed, in check. For example, when a particularly skillful hunter returned to camp with a generous hunk of meat, it would be shared equally—but the hunter had no hand in deciding the apportioning. Others took over and divided up the gift. They didn't stop there, however. From the minute that the successful hunter returned, through the division of his trophy, the band kept up a banter of derogatory comments. The meat was criticized and belittled, as if it was unsatisfactory. The hunter's skill was deprecated, as if the group was ashamed of him.
This good-natured ribbing also occurred when any member of the band excelled in other ways, or threatened to grow a larger head. It has been a very successful technique to stifle greed and arrogance, and to promote equality within the group. It's worked for some 200,000 years. It seems doubtful that modern human culture—in which greed is encouraged—will persevere anywhere near as long.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Science, Philosophy, and Religion

I have blogged a few times about the differences between science and philosophy. I was educated and trained as a scientist, and have found it a struggle to comprehend the philosopher's way of thinking. Since retiring to the country to follow a simpler life, I no longer professionally practice science, so it's given me an opportunity to turn to philosophy to work at trying to grasp some of its concepts. It ain't been easy! It's like moving to another country as an adult—after your inherent language-learning skills have drastically declined from when you were two years old—and struggling with a very different language in a very different culture. But thanks to several online courses in philosophy, I'm beginning to be a bit conversant with it.
Just as a little background (and to remind myself of the contrast), here are the dictionary definitions of the two disciplines:
  • Science: “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the natural world, through observation and experiment” Root meaning: “to know.”
  • Philosophy: “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” Root meaning: “love of wisdom.”
So science is an activity, while philosophy is a study. Science is an objective examination of the natural world (which includes humans), while philosophy is a subjective examination of what we humans know or can come to know. While the ancient thinkers believed that we can arrive at truth and knowledge through sheer reasoning, science conducts experiments to develop knowledge. The difference is sort of like the study of the properties of the external world (science) versus the study of the internal world or of our mind's ability to grasp the external world (philosophy).
While today's science is partitioned into many disciplines, philosophy has also grown to be categorized into several branches. One of my online courses defined four subdisciplines in philosophy:
  1. Metaphysics—What is there? What's it like?
  2. Epistemology—What can we know? How do we know?
  3. Value theory—What's good/bad? How can we be good/bad?
  4. Logic—Which links it all together. (I quickly become swamped when reading logic. It's yet beyond me.)
When we delve into these four branches, we find ourselves facing moral, aesthetic, and value questions. We get into questions of what we should do, and what is right or wrong.
Science, on the other hand, is amoral (not immoral, as some people would say)—it is by and large unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of what it studies. Thus, for example, many scientists engaged in the development of the atomic bomb in World War II, with little moral examination. That is not to say that scientists ignored the moral questions. For example, even though he had a hand in initiating the US's atomic bomb program, Einstein later came to regret his role. The point is that science does not include moral evaluations as part of its activities. That's philosophy's business.
I find it interesting how differently many religions approach and interpret these scientific and philosophical questions about the nature of the world and the nature of human knowledge. Religions have a very different perspective. Yes, humans can reason, religions say, but truth comes from the gods, or the one God. Thus, truth (as well as morality and values) is found in scripture or possibly through mystical insight, but not through human reasoning.
This religious perspective is often taken to an extreme by religious fundamentalists, who contend that everything known or worth knowing can be found in scripture. This approach does not really seek understanding through the gradual acquisition of knowledge, but by locating finality (fixed and complete answers) in scripture. This difference is a source of most of the conflict between religion and the disciplines of science and philosophy. This conflict is largely absent, however, with nonfundamentalist religious people—people who may revere scripture, but do not contend that it is the sole repository of knowledge and wisdom.
With every online course I take, my appreciation for both science and philosophy grows. I also gain better understanding of the basis of conflict between how these two cognitive ways of looking at reality clash with religious fundamentalism—and realize that there need not be conflict with all religious belief.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

Neanderthal Knack

We humans have suffered numerous blows to our ego in recent decades, as one of our so-called exceptional qualities after another has been recognized in other animals. First it was the realization years ago that many animals also forge tools—maybe not as complex as our robots and computers—but they are an intentional use of an object (often even constructed by the critter itself) to accomplish a deed that their paws or claws alone could not. 
Next it was the ability to self-recognize, such as when we look in a mirror and realize it's our own self, rather than some other being. There are several other examples of barriers being dismantled; barriers that we had come to believe distinguish us from “lower” animals. The message: we are not that far removed from the animal kingdom. 
Yet one more blow to the belief in human exclusivity recently landed, when Neanderthal art was discovered in caves in Spain. So why is the discovery of Neanderthal art so unexpected, or even seen as threatening to our superiority, by some people? When the fossil bones of these distant cousins were discovered in the 19th century in Germany, anthropologists were inclined to deem them as some sort of inferior brute. Otherwise, why would they have gone extinct? 
It was known that our direct ancestors, the Cro-Magnon, and Neanderthals co-existed for several thousand years, before the latter died out. We won; they lost. Furthermore, their fossil skeletons showed them to be heavy-browed, stout folks. Weren't they closer to apes than humans? So how can we accept these brutes as being artists?

Let's first consider some background and how we know it was Neanderthals who had the knack to create their own style of cave art. Furthermore, is it art? These recent Spanish cave discoveries have been dated to a time some 25,000 years before our human ancestors even left Africa—during an epoch in which Neanderthals were the sole species of hominid in Europe... the sole European artists, as it now turns out. The paintings are the first example of true Neanderthal art we have found.

Exquisite examples of Cro-Magnon cave art had previously been discovered over many years, in Spain and France. They exhibit a quality that obviously emanates from the human mind—a mind that is highly conscious and reflects upon itself. When we look upon these Cro-Magnon drawings, we find that they evoke deep feelings within us. They are fellow humans.

Gazing upon the recent Spanish cave drawings by Neanderthals, one gets a similar feeling from their art. It may not be as accomplished as Cro-Magnon art, but the paintings surely evoke an intelligent, highly-conscious mind; one that obviously reflected upon itself. These feelings inevitably draw us closer to those Neanderthals who wangled their way into dark cave recesses some 30 to 40,000 years ago and created these works of art. They move us. They truly are art.

Until this recent Neanderthal discovery, we thought that only we Homo sapiens (descended from the Cro-Magnon) were capable of expressing such meaning. Neanderthals were thought to be too primitive. They were artless, because we believed that Neanderthals could not have acquired the necessary cultural self-consciousness to create art. 
It will take some time for us to comprehend the significance of these recent cave art discoveries. It's obvious that they demonstrate Neanderthals were capable of creating art. But what did their drawings mean to them? For that matter, we're still trying to comprehend the meaning of Cro-Magnon cave art. These Neanderthal renderings are undeniably art, but why did they do it? Why penetrate deep into caves (without modern battery-powered lights) and create their works in darkness? Had they any idea that their art would survive for so long, to inspire and puzzle future humans?

As we ponder these mysteries—and will probably discover more—the answers may come to us. In the meantime, we can benefit from an appreciation of yet one more connection to our ancient Neanderthal cousins, as well as many non-human species. It tells us there's a gradual blend of capabilities between species—not a stark barrier. Is there not an unbroken path from “primitive” cave art to the Mona Lisa?

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Glass Hummingbird

A friend gave me this glass cube with a hummingbird encased. It's about 3 inches (8 cm) high. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Camel Cuties

We humans are very conscious of appearances. We focus on looks and the outward show, when we gaze upon things—whether other people, animals, or architecture. People will go to great lengths to appear attractive—by buying expensive clothes, applying gobs of makeup, getting breast enhancement operations, going on extreme diets, etc. We hold beauty contests—for us humans, for our domestic animals, for our cars, for our gardens. You might say we're obsessed with good looks.

We claim to esteem various sayings that belie our fixation about appearances, such as “Beauty is only skin deep,” or “Don't judge a book by its cover,” but we really just pay lip service to these aphorisms. We pretend that character and substance matter, but it's the faรงade that we really value.

We place such high priority on good looks that we often cheat in our beauty contests. Numerous scandals have occurred over the years—not unlike the doping scandals that happen in sports. But now we have the worst beauty scandal of all: Saudi camel owners cheating in the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival.
I have to admit, being an American, that I regard a camel as one of the more unsightly creatures around. But I wouldn't be surprised if a Saudi thought an American opossum or raccoon was ugly as sin. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and Saudis behold their camels as lovely.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz Camel Festival is big business. Some 30,000 camels compete for over $30 million in prize money. That's a strong incentive to doll up your favorite dromedary to be as cute as possible—in fact, maybe even cross the moral line to try to dupe the judges by cheating.

Some of the beauty marks camel judges have traditionally looked for are tallness, a long neck, a big head and nose, dangling lips, and droopy ears. A fraudulent owner can't do much about his camel's height or neck length, but there are other devious means that some are resorting to. For example, some use Botox on their camel's face, which makes it appear more “inflated”, so it appears to have that desired bigger head, droopy lips, and an inflated nose. Some owners will tie down their camel's lips before the competition, so they dangle more, or inject their lips with anesthetic, to cause them to sag. They'll even coat the critter's ears with oil so they droop more, due to the added weight. What's next, silicon injections?

The Saudi judges are catching on to this nefarious form of misrepresentation, however. They are coming up with better monitoring schemes and penalties. Violators can be fined and banned for several years from competition. We can only hope that the Saudi authorities successfully check this pernicious behavior.
I find it hard to understand this phenomenon, since I find camels to be quite homely critters. But let me say no more about dromedary droopy lips or ears, lest I contribute further to the gap between Christians and Muslims.