So Much For Soft Hearted and Squishy Headed

There’s a popular stereotype which says that people who worry about the homeless, racism, poverty and other social ills have soft hearts and squishy heads. Those who do not share their concerns will often accuse them of abandoning logic for emotionalism. Because emotions are for silly women, queers and other people not to be taken seriously, of course.

However, my friend Sonya (hi, Sonya!) recently passed on a study which shows that, scientifically speaking, this stereotype is dead wrong. Researchers using brain scans found that rather than being driven by emotions, people who are concerned with issues of social justice make greater use of the logic centers of their brains than people who do not:

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.

The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

This goes a long way towards explaining some of the facebook conversations I’ve had lately. You know the kind; someone saying something idiotic responds to factual evidence that their claims are wrong by jumping to their next talking point or looking for some petty inconsistency in your argument rather than deal with reality. They aren’t being logical, but are driven by the emotional imperative to avoid being wrong. Ahem.

You can read more about the study (conducted at the University of Chicago) here.

Not So Red of Tooth and Claw

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve long wondered what it says about God that we live in a world of predator and prey. Sometimes it helps to be reminded that even in this world of predator and prey God’s more gentle, compassionate nature can be observed as well:

A brave baboon attempted to make a run for it. Unfortunately, a lioness caught it. As the baboon died, the photographers noticed a baby baboon slowly disengaging itself from its underside.

They held their breath as the innocent, frail baby stood before the lionesses.

One lioness gently and curiously examined the baboon. He was frightened and hurt.

She softly picked him up in her mouth and settled down over him, watching.

The little one even tried to nuzzle the lion, not knowing what she was.

You’ll need to go see the conclusion here. It gets even better.

The First Brain

You know, y’all are an unusually quiet bunch of readers. I would bet money I don’t have that a freakishly high percentage of you are Introverted Intuitives on the Meyer’s Briggs Personality Test. Which isn’t a complaint, of course. I’m an Introverted Intuitive myself. But it does mean that I know far less about y’all than most writers with an audience my size.

However, a few of you have been bold enough to reach out and make yourselves known to me. And I have to assume that the rest of you are really awesome because my readers who I’ve gotten to know have turned out to be some of my favorite people. I even consider many of them friends.

One of the first readers who connected with me is a professor of biology at The University of West Chester Pennsylvania named Oné R. Pagán. Over the last nearly two years, Oné has become a friend and has been a source of encouragement to me. I’m certain he would be shocked at just how often certain things he has said to me have kept me going when selfdoubt and discouragement came prowling. He has been a true blessing.

The reason I am telling you about dear Dr. Pagán is because not only is he a professor and great guy, he’s also a blogger and a newly published author who I think you should know about. You can find his blog at Bald Scientist where he writes mainly about science with an aim to make it understandable and interesting to lay people. A new Carl Sagan in the making.

PLUS, Oné’s first book was recently published by Oxford Press (he’s a fancy, impressive guy that way). It’s called The First Brain. It’s about brains. And flat worms. And drugs. And aliens. Ok, not aliens. But if you like reading about science and have any interest in neurobiology, you should check it out. Because then you’ll be smarter and the world will be a better place. And we all want the world to be a better place, don’t we?

Anyhow, I wanted to pass that along to you, my dear, mostly silent, anonymous audience. And offer a proper congratulations to Oné for the publication of his first book. You can learn more about the book as well as get a code for 20% off a hard cover copy of The First Brain here. I would put up a picture of the super cool cover for y’all to see, but I’m having no end of technical difficulties, so you’ll just have to follow the link and be impressed.

And, reader? It’s OK to speak up from time to time, k? 🙂

Playing With Our Lives?

Did you know that all animals play? I knew some did, but hadn’t realized how widespread play is in the animal kingdom:

the existence of animal play is considered something of an intellectual scandal. It’s understudied, and those who do study it are seen as mildly eccentric. As with many vaguely threatening, speculative notions, difficult-to-satisfy criteria are introduced for proving animal play exists, and even when it is acknowledged, the research more often than not cannibalizes its own insights by trying to demonstrate that play must have some long-term survival or reproductive function.

Despite all this, those who do look into the matter are invariably forced to the conclusion that play does exist across the animal universe. And exists not just among such notoriously frivolous creatures as monkeys, dolphins, or puppies, but among such unlikely species as frogs, minnows, salamanders, fiddler crabs, and yes, even ants—which not only engage in frivolous activities as individuals, but also have been observed since the nineteenth century to arrange mock-wars, apparently just for the fun of it. ~ David Graeber*

Aside from just being cool, it also makes me wonder if God’s intention for us doesn’t include a good deal of pleasure. Scripture says that creation is a testimony to God. If play is so widespread that ants do it, then that must reflect something about God’s nature and therefor ours.

In the article I quote above, Dr. Graeber goes on to postulate that play at it’s most basic level may even exist at the quantum level. That even subatomic particles may be chosing their paths and that they may sometimes do it for the sheer pleasure of it.

It’s an axiom of JudeoChristian thought that there is something wrong with humanity. If we learn that play is a driving force in the very foundations of the universe. And if we accept that living things appear to all play. Then, it would appear that our impoverished concept of play and its role in our lives may be one of those things that’s really wrong about us. Who woulda thunk it?

*That quote comes from a delightful article I read recently on the role of play in creation. It’s really long and rather scholarly though. Sample:

What would happen if we proceeded from the reverse perspective and agreed to treat play not as some peculiar anomaly, but as our starting point, a principle already present not just in lobsters and indeed all living creatures, but also on every level where we find what physicists, chemists, and biologists refer to as “self-organizing systems”

If that sentence made your heart sing, you can go read the whole thing here. If you’re a normal human being and that sentence gave you a headache, here’s an awesome video of a whale and dolphin playing:

The Tree, The Fish and The Light

Once upon a time, in the deep recesses of time on this planet, there was some slime. Or maybe it was bacteria. Slimey bacteria? I don’t really know. I wasn’t there and I’m not actually a scientist. But there was something alive. It was in water, consumed energy and could reproduce itself.

Rain Forest-2 (Canopy Tower)One day, a bit of this slime got left in a puddle on the beach and survived. Then little by little, over the course of more time than you or I can imagine, it changed. It left the water and adapted to dry land and became a plant. It could take the light of the sun and use it to grow itself. The plant loved the sun. At every chance, it would adapt to grow higher and higher, ever closer to the sun it needed, loved and desired. When many eons had passed, what had once been slime left on the beach, had given way to trees so tall they seemed to scrape the sky. And yet, no matter how much of the sun they took in or how high they grew, the trees could never reach the sun. There would always be a space between the trees and the object of their desire.

While the slime that got left on the beach was morphing into mighty trees, another bit of slime was far out at sea. Over the eons, it adapted and morphed until it became a fish. At first the fish kept close to the surface, eating what grew in the sun. But as time went on, the sun became bothersome, the food more plentiful down below. And the fish adapted bit by bit to delving deeper and deeper into the sea. Like the trees, the fish was seeking life, but instead of reaching for the light, the darkness pulled it deeper and deeper in its quest.

The light became faint and the fish grew accustomed to living in a twilight world. But still something kept drawing it deeper. At the same time the trees were striving to meet the sun, the fish had all but lost its eyes in the darkness. It could hardly fathom the world it had known so many generations before when it had swum where the sun shone. The fish came to think that the darkness was all there was and that it was endless.

biolumBut a funny thing happened. One generation, the fish began to glow a bit. And in what seemed like the blink of the eye in the scheme of things, the fish didn’t just glow, Its light could blink and flash and dazzle in the dark depths. The fish had found life and become light there in the inky blackness.

The slime that became the tree was doomed to forever seek, but never reach the light it loved so dearly.  It took dwelling in complete darkness for the slime which became the fish to discover that it carried light within itself.

And so it is with man. We can seek after the light of God with all our might, but we will never own it that way. It is only when we allow God to lead us into the darkness that we discover the light of God within our very being.

“Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses climbed higher and became more perfected, he saw God in the darkness.” ~ Gregory of Nyssa

Consciousness and Genesis 1

I want to write about my personal theory on the story of creation told in Genesis 1 today, but I can’t think of any interesting or clever way to start the post. So I thought maybe I could find a good joke about creation to use. After looking for awhile I found this little gem:

A minister, a priest and a rabbi went for a hike one day. It was very hot.
They were sweating and exhausted when they came upon a small lake.
Since it was fairly secluded, they took off all their clothes and
jumped in the water.

Feeling refreshed, the trio decided to pick a few berries while enjoying
their “freedom.” As they were crossing an open area, who should come
along but a group of ladies from town. Unable to get to their clothes in
time, the minister and the priest covered their privates and the rabbi
covered his face while they ran for cover.

After the ladies had left and the men got their clothes back on, the
minister and the priest asked the rabbi why he covered his face rather
than his privates. The rabbi replied, “I don’t know about you, but in
MY congregation, it’s my face they would recognize.”

Of course that joke has nothing to do with creation, but it’s funny so in my infinite wisdom, I’ve decided that’s what counts. Now . . . moving on to the story of creation.

One of the oddities of the story of creation in Genesis 1 is that the order in which things were created makes no sense. First there’s day and night and then later, after there was land and plants, but before there were animals, the sun, moon and stars get made. Water was apparently pre-existing and had to be separated from air to make the sky. So on and so forth.

For creationists, none of this matters because somehow that’s just how God did it. For people who run a wee bit deeper and wider than that, both logic and science say that it couldn’t have happened like that. Those who reject religion say the creation story is just something people made up to explain the world and really means nothing. Christians who don’t blasphemously reject the evidence of God’s own creation in favor of man’s understanding of scripture figure the point of the story is that God made everything, he made it with purpose and it is good.

I personally have my own pet theory about why the order of creation is all jumbled up in Genesis 1. Continue reading

Fundamentally Flawed Podcast With Rebecca

I had a chance to chat this afternoon with Alex Botten on his podcast show Fundamentally Flawed regarding the perils and problems with teaching kids literal creationism.  We had fun.  And kind of ripped on advocates of literal creationism.  I hope you will head over and check it out.

If you are unfamiliar with my ideas regarding evolution and Christianity, I have a page on the blog dedicated to the subject.  It’s under the “Hot Topics” menu and titled “Christianity & Evolution”.  Included on the page are posts like “Why Creationism Doesn’t Honor God“, “I Love Evolution, a Christian Perspective“, “In Which I Call Creationism Demonic“, “Raising Christian Evolutionists” and more.

-Rebecca

In Which I Call Creationism Demonic

From “Thinking SciFi”

“O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.” (Psalm 139:1)

Perhaps the most frightening attribute of God is that He knows everything about us. Everything! He has “searched” (literally “penetrated”) us and “known” (“understood”) us. . . Furthermore, He is everywhere around each one of us (vv. 7-10), wherever we are or could be. He fills all space, and there is no escape.

Go ahead, ask me where I found that quote.  Or even better, how ’bout I up the fun quotient and give you some options. Was it:

a. A site promoting atheism

b. A humor site skewering religion 

c. A devotional piece from the Days of Praise blog put out by a Creationist advocacy group

I’ll give you a moment to figure it out. . . Oh wait – did I give it away?  Yep, this “be afraid, Be very afraid” moment has been brought to you by none other than The Institute for Creation Research; a highly profitable venerable institution promoting creation “science”.  The very same people whom a federal judge recently said  are “entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information.” Good to see our tax dollars hard at work there, eh?

This upsets me.  My opinions about the theological viability of creationist interpretations aren’t something I’m shy about.  I truly believe that it’s demonic.  Whether you understand that to be a metaphor for our ability to create and perpetuate evil or as satan whispering in your ear, the answer is the same; it is demonic.  Continue reading

Apparently My Week Has 8 Days In It

I started to do these “Best of the Week” posts a few weeks ago and it seems that my week is consistently 8 days long.  Which I have no doubt that people who have to deal with me would agree is pretty much how I work!  But hey – it’s my blog and it’s free!  (Although you can make a donati0n to support the site using that tip jar over there.)

So, here’s what I’ve found interesting in the past week:

Seriously – why is any man in the USA so powerful that he can assign people to hunt down every word said about him and have them go after a high school senior with 65 followers for cracking wise about him on twitter? This is what power being abused looks like. Good for this smart-alecky teen for not giving in!

Here’s my politics for the week:

I love neuroscience.  And it’s absolutely fascinating what scientists are starting to parse out from DNA in regards to questions like what makes us human and how our biology influences our thinking and behavior.  Here are two interesting articles on the subject:

Neanderthal Neuroscience and Neuroscience and Free Will

I enjoyed this blog post on God or the Bible at Overweights of Joy:

“Eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ personally” (John 17:3). We have perhaps defined eternal life as living eternally in heaven. But that was not how Jesus defined it. Eternal life has nothing to do with going to heaven or escaping hell. It has to do with knowing the Lord. To know God intimately and personally has been the passion of my life and the burden of my heart.

And:

If Bible knowledge could produce holiness, we should be having the godliest people in history living today. But we don’t. Satan himself would have been holy if Bible knowledge could produce holiness – for no one knows the Bible as well as he does.

Back into the realm of the scientific: But I Raised Them Right! – What Your Child’s DNA Can Tell You About Parenting.  I am 100% certain that  my two boys have the genetic variant that is associated with not being able to learn from one’s mistakes and negative experiences.

And on that note, let me just share my parenting thought for the week.  When a family has children with a wide range of ages, it is often observed that parents seem to become less active and more lax than one might expect with the last child.  This is usually attributed to the parents being tired and worn out.  I am here to report that this is not, generally, the problem.  What happens is that by the time you get to your last child, the limits of your ability to shape another human being – even your own child – have become amply clear.

 

I Love Evolution! (A Christian’s Perspective)

One of the primary purposes of creation is supposed to be to provide a testimony of who God is.  It’s a shame that so many religious people fail to get that.  But for anyone who cares to look, the details which emerge are amazing.  They are amazing in their own right, but they are also amazing because these details are ones that God put in place.  Every physical reality points us to a spiritual truth. (Coming later this week – a blog post on The Theology of Poop! Subscribe now!)

Interestingly, the set of details which religious people are most likely to insist aren’t there – evolution – points us to those spiritual truths which are pretty much completely lacking in most people’s theology as well.  Like growth.  Like getting down to tiny details.  Like knowing that survival relies on adapability and that life is moved forward by mutations, not preseved by purity.

I love the elegance of evolution.  Have you ever looked closely at a blade of grass?  It’s ridged.  That helps to channel water towards the ends of the blade so it will fall to the ground and water the plant.  It’s why grass can grow so close together and part of what made grass successful in places where trees and mosses can’t thrive. It’s so purposeful.

Evolution creates these neat little puzzles to work out.  (people love puzzles!  Wasn’t that nice of God to put that in there?)  Why are panda’s black and white?  Could it be related to their baby’s vulnerability?  Maybe just like with human babies they are attracted to black and white, so the babies with black and white parents were more likely to respond and survive.  Maybe we’re just making stuff up, but if we really want, we can run experiments and see if  we’re right!  Ooooo – what kind of experiment?  This is fun!  Why on God’s green earth would you want to deprive your children of the opportunity to learn this way of seeing and interacting with the world?  Because you didn’t come from no monkeys?  Well, sorry Sparky, but you’re not in charge here.  If God wanted your great to the kajillionth generation grandmother to be part monkey on her father’s side, then so be it.  Who are you to tell him otherwise?

The spiritual implications of the systems and methods of evolution are fascinating.  Think of all the references to the cycles of nature illuminating deep spiritual truths (seasons changing, grain falling to the ground and dying, etc).  As we understand the way God works in creation with more and more precision we will have new insights into how God works spiritually as well.

The ancient Hebrew way of meditating was to take two seemingly conflicted things, hold them together in one’s mind until they started making sense together.  If God is love and creation reflect’s his handiwork, what does it mean to live in a world with predators?  What exactly is God’s relationship with creation if he was able to make a good creation by setting loose a set of rules, principles and material rather than by directing it like a construction foreman?  These are fascinating questions, I think.

Evolution doesn’t deny scripture and scripture doesn’t deny evolution.  (How can reality deny reality?)  But evolution sure does make it clear that we don’t understand it as well as we think we do.  Which is hardly a bad thing.  Spirituality is still in the dark ages in a lot of ways.  Why wouldn’t we want to understand things better, more accurately, more deeply than we do now?  It’s done a world of good in the physical world.  Perhaps its time for the spiritual world to start catching up.  Make our own evolutionary lead forward.