Friday, April 20, 2018

Hypatia, You Are Not Forgotten


The movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, is one of the few fictional movies ever to be reviewed in Science magazine. I have now seen it three times and have come to understand it. It is one of the few essential movies that you need to see to understand the meaning of science in the human mind. You’d better see it at least once.



Hypatia of Alexandria (Egypt), in the fourth century of the Christian Era, was a philosopher and teacher. She accepted students of diverse faiths, including a Roman pagan and a Christian. She taught them that if two things are equal to a third, then all are equal, and she insisted that this applies to herself and to her students: she the (we would say today) atheist, and her pagan and Christian students, were all equal.

Hypatia’s faith was different from those of any of her students. They believed that truths were revealed by one or more gods, while she believed that the highest pursuit of the human spirit was to understand the universe itself, to decipher what it is telling us. In particular, she wanted to understand why the planets did not move in a perfect circle around the Earth. Ptolemy had said that the planets and sun traced their own little circles as they orbited the Earth, but this seemed whimsical: if the universe is perfect, why should these little epicycles be necessary? Then she found out that the philosopher Aristarchus, centuries previously, had suggested that the planets, including Earth, went around the sun. But if the universe was built on perfect circles, then the Earth must describe a perfect circle around the sun, which it does not: sometimes the sun was smaller (more distant) and dimmer than at other times. Then she figured out that the Earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. After she died, and her writings were lost, it took another 1,200 years until Johannes Kepler rediscovered this truth. To Hypatia, the universe had to have mathematical perfection, and it was our job to understand it. This remains the fundamental belief of scientists, although we now recognize that a great deal of historical contingency, what we might call messiness (for example, the Big Bang created globs of galaxies, not perfectly spaced ones) that Hypatia might have found unacceptable.



Alexandria was going through successive waves of turmoil all during this time. Unlike Hypatia and her students, the adherents of religions all hated each other. The Egyptian pagans attacked the Christians, then the Christians attacked the Egyptians and destroyed the library of Alexandria, the most famous condensation of knowledge in all of history, gleefully rejoicing in the burning of scientific books. Then the Christians turned on the Jews. The Romans couldn’t do much; they were the nominal rulers, but the Empire was in decline and the Roman soldiers couldn’t do much. Hypatia’s Roman student became the Consul of Alexandria, and he very publicly loved Hypatia. Her Christian student became a famous bishop. They tried to keep violence from getting out of hand, but the majority of Christians did not listen to the peaceful bishop; instead they followed the radicals who called upon Christians, in the name of Jesus, to stone to death everyone who did not agree with them, and this eventually included Hypatia. The charges leveled against Hypatia were that Scripture forbade a woman to teach in public. They should just stay home and, if they should happen to venture out in public, keep their damned mouths shut. Hypatia spoke in public and was a scholar. This was plenty of reason for the Christians to push her to the altar, strip her, stone her, and drag her mutilated body through the streets. A young Christian man, who had been Hypatia’s slave but whom she liberated even though he sexually assaulted her, tried to save her, but not very hard.



In this image, Hypatia tries to save scrolls from the Library of Alexandria as it is being pillaged and burnt.

All of the religions that were concentrated together in Alexandria were guilty of killing people of other religions. But in Alexandria during Hypatia’s time, it was clearly the Christians who carried out the most and the worst violence, and who eventually became the leaders of the western world. The leaders of this violence became saints, such as Saint Cyril.

Hypatia was troubled by the fact that the events on the Earth were so messy and random, while all around the Earth, the heavens were perfect, though in an elliptical rather than a circular way. The recurring imagery of the movie is the ellipse—such as the circular opening in the library vault, seen from the side—and a view of Earth from outer space, focusing down onto Alexandria, and then receding again into the indifferent stars.

Today, most of the American opponents of scientific truth are evangelical Christians, and they are closer to using violence against scientists than we usually think. American evangelical Christians do not even want to question whether the proclamations of their preachers and of Donald Trump are consistent with the Bible, much less with scientific and historical truth. At other times and in other places, there are other enemies of truth: Stalin killed geneticists, and Islamic terrorists don’t want anybody to disagree with them about anything. But for me, here in America and now, it is the evangelical Christians whom I consider the most dangerous, just as they were to Hypatia of Alexandria. The violent Christians (that is, most of them) set science back a millennium. Many of them appear to want to do so again.

Whether the tragedy of Hypatia is repeated again, or not, we should not forget her or the power of a woman’s mind.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Your Evolution Professor Telling You to Read Your Bible


Many of my students are creationists and claim to be Bible believers. But many of them have not read much of the Bible. On the first day of class I always write a passage from the sermon on the mount (“Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these”). Almost none of the students, even the ones in the Jesus T-shirts, recognize it. They go to church and listen to preachers quote select passages of scripture, usually chosen to reflect Republican agenda items. Rarely if ever do members of these fundamentalist churches check up on the preachers, or read the passages that the preachers avoid.

So here is what I did. I teach at a secular university (thank God!) so I could not tell students what to think about the Bible; or even what I think about it. But I did tell them that if they believe the Bible they should read it for themselves—all of it, not just the parts their preachers quote. And they should think for themselves about what it means, rather than the interpretation the preacher insists that they believe.

Their evolution professor, telling them to read the Bible? These students have been living off of tidbits of the Bible that their preachers give them, sort of like pre-Reformation Catholics being unable to read the Latin Bible and having to just believe whatever the priests said. Only this is worse; these students do have access, in all formats (except clay tablet), to the Bible. I have, perhaps, made the Bible fully available to them for the first time, if only by irritating them to read it.

In this way, I am like John Wycliffe or Martin Luther, Protestant reformers of the late middle ages who, along with others, made the Bible available in languages the people could read. I, like them, am encouraging people to actually read the Bible.


I also posted this essay on my science blog.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Psychological Differences between Conservatives and Liberals


I continue writing about the study of 1,252 people by Wilhelm Hofmann et al. (Science, 2014) that I summarized in the preceding essay. One of the purposes of the study was to compare the moral values of liberals with those of conservatives.

Liberals cared more about fairness, liberty, and honesty, while conservatives cared more about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. That is, the values to which conservatives fundamentally cling are those that make them march in lock-step with one another and believe whatever their religious and political leaders tell them. Many of us would say that the moral values of liberals—try to be fair to and honest with people, and give them the liberty to live as they please, so long as they do not harm others—are superior to the moral values of conservatives, that is, to impose their moral values on other people.

In what I write next, I am going beyond the conclusions of the paper.

It is the conservative moral values that are leading our nation and world into peril. Conservatives are loyal to the Republican party and defend the authority of Donald Trump (though this was not yet the case at the time the article was published). They believe themselves to have sanctity, that is, saintliness, and for anyone who disagrees with them to be impure. Whatever their leaders tell them, they cling to it and are ready to rise up and fight any who differ from them, under the right conditions.

The values to which we liberals cling, however, are not those that are getting the world into trouble. We want to be fair to everybody: for example, it may be fair for you to have a gun, but it is fair for us to not be shot by your gun, and life is more valuable than gun possession. We liberals want liberty for everyone, but we recognize that your gun liberty is restricting our liberty to live. And we want to be honest, which is why our statements are more moderate and cautious than the simplistic and flaming rhetoric of the conservatives, and why such a breathtakingly high number of lies have issued forth from the current Republican political leaders. Practically every Trump tweet contains an easily recognizable lie. Conservatives want to be loyal to their party and to their exalted leader, and will make stuff up to bolster that loyalty.

Of course, there are spectra of liberals and of conservatives. But the liberals are more likely to recognize this. A typical conservative cannot have a decent conversation with any liberal: loyalty, authority, and sanctity are of prime importance. But I would rather have an honest conversation with a thoughtful conservative than spend time with a ranting liberal. I doubt, however, that most conservatives would prefer talking quietly to me to listening to the rants of Rush Limbaugh.

One cannot help being attracted to a political viewpoint that matches his or her psychological inclinations; but some of those inclinations endanger the future of the world, and others do not. Your desire to shoot me, and my desire to not be shot by you, may be equally the products of our inclinations; but your desire is bad, and mine is good.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) said on a February 21, 2018 news program that most mass shooters are Democrats. I wonder if she, and others like her, are beginning to stir up the moral sentiments of conservatives to begin to take physical action against liberals.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Psychological Differences between Religious and Non-Religious People


There appear to be psychological differences between liberals and conservatives—not in the sense of brain dysfunction, but in the sense of fundamental psychological values. That is, neither liberals nor conservatives arrive at their beliefs completely by reason. They base their morals on the way their psychological values incline them to see the world. We all knew this, but a 2014 article in Science (“Morality in Everyday Life,” by Wilhelm Hoffman, Daniel C. Wisneski, Mark J. Brandt, and Linda J. Skitka; Science 345: 1340-1343) confirm this and give us specific examples of what these values are, based on a study of 1,252 people, from whom they received 13,240 responses.


The psychological differences between liberals and conservatives was not the main purpose of the study. It was to study how the moral or immoral behavior of other people can affect your moral or immoral behavior. That is, is there a “moral contagion” in which one good deed catalyzes another? Believe it or not, you can actually study morality and immorality scientifically. Does committing moral deeds make you feel better about yourself? Does committing immoral deeds make you feel worse about yourself? And, finally, are religious people more likely than non-religious people to be moral?

Previous studies of moral values, the authors said, have been based on what they call “moral vignettes.” Subjects are interviewed by psychologists, who tell them a story with a moral dilemma and ask them what they would do. But this is highly unrealistic. What I think I might do, when I am sitting in a chair in a psychology lab, might be very different from what I would actually do. “...virtually no research has taken morality science out of these artificial settings and directly asked people about whether and how they think about morality and immorality in the course of their everyday lived experience.” That is, this study investigated the things that actually happened each day in people’s lives.

The results were unsurprising but, apparently, have not been tabulated previously. People are happier when they are the recipients of other people’s moral acts (such as care and empathy) than when they experience other people’s immoral acts; but their sense of purpose was more strongly affected by what they did rather than by what they experienced, whether positive or negative.

What about moral contagion? Yes and no. People who experienced the moral kindness of others were more likely to themselves commit a moral act of kindness. On the other hand, after people committed moral acts, they were then more likely to do something immoral, feeling that, by having done something good earlier in the day, they deserved the right to be a little immoral.

What does this have to do with evolution? Evolution has conferred upon the human brain the instincts for both good and bad behavior. Studies such as this one illustrate how both kinds of behavior are kept alive in human populations.

The other results of this study were no less interesting. Religious people were no more or less likely to commit moral acts. The only discernible difference was that religious people tended to feel more disgust at their own immoral acts (or to say that they did). The authors conclude, “religious and nonreligious people commit comparable moral and immoral deeds with comparable frequency.” So much for religion making people better.

The authors of the study concluded, “A closer, ecologically valid look at how morality unfolds in people’s natural environments may inspire new models and theories about what it means to lead the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ life.” They left it to the rest of us to apply their conclusions to the world around us.

The differences between liberals and conservatives was even more interesting. But that is the topic of the next essay.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Jesus is Now Irrelevant to Evangelical Christianity


Jesus is Now Irrelevant to Evangelical Christianity

When I started this blog, I intended it as a serious examination of religious issues. Mostly this meant separating the big questions of life from the doctrinal details that fundamentalists use to grant themselves power and authority. To go from “God exists” to “believe everything Pat Robertson says” leaves out a few steps.

But, increasingly, this does not matter. As I have noted, fundamentalist Christians have pretty much lined up behind Trump, and they believe what he says and does what he tells them without even thinking about it. No matter what an agnostic might say, it doesn’t matter, because God and Jesus are totally irrelevant to what the evangelical churches now stand for.

Clear lines are being drawn. After his State of the Union message, Donald Trump said that if someone did not clap for him, it was treason. The fact that the constitution defines treason differently from Trump does not matter; Trump’s definition is the one evangelical Christians now use. And the constitution prescribes the death penalty for treason.

The Republican Party and evangelical Christianity are coming very close to being a personality cult of Donald Trump. We hope that guns will not be brought to bear on those who refuse to go along with this personality cult. But where is the evidence? What is to stop it? Who is to stop it? So far, no prominent Republicans, and no evangelical churches or groups, have stood up to Trump. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s in Germany when the National Socialist party became a personality cult for Hitler.

The Bible at least was honest about the sins of the rulers of Israel and Judah. In stark contrast, Republicans and their evangelical devotees will not admit that Trump has any faults.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Welcome Back to the Cold War


Today, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has the capability to destroy the United States, not just because of its nuclear weapons but because of enhanced delivery systems. The Cold War has returned. Those of you who were born after about 1990 have grown up in a world in which mutual assured destruction has always been a possibility but nobody ever thought about it much. The reason for this was because the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia focused more on its own economic development than on wanting to destroy America. Also, at that time, we had a president who was a moderate and thoughtful Republican (George H. W. Bush). But now, narcissistic egomaniacs are in control of both America (Donald Trump) and Russia (Vlad).

I grew up with the threat of nuclear destruction of the world. It didn’t happen. While it is unlikely to happen now or ever, the imminent possibility has returned. All that either Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin have to do is have a conniption fit and press the button.

Actually, it is not quite that simple. Only the president can authorize a nuclear strike. He broadcasts an encoded message to missile crews (the message, conveniently enough, is about as long as a tweet, Trump’s beloved form of communication). After that point, there is probably no chance to stop total nuclear annihilation. The five missile crews open safes to verify that the launch code sent by the president matches the one in the safe, to make sure that the order is not from a hacker. According to this report the five crews have to turn their keys at the same time. Then the report says, “There are five different keys, but only two need to be turned to launch the missiles.” Therefore, the president cannot launch a nuclear strike if everyone thinks he is crazy. But Trump has enough people who believe everything he says that it is not at all unthinkable for two keys to be turned to release The End of the World. And the Russian chain of command is even more mindlessly worshipful of Vlad than the American chain of command is of The Donald.

Evolution has given us brains that respond to imminent threat with quick and thoughtless attack. Not until the 1950s was it possible for such instinctual reactions to endanger the entire planet. For a few brief years, from 1990 until March 1, 2018, it remained possible but very unlikely. Now we are back to the panic mode. Living in a constant panic mode can erode your health. But in the evolutionary past, nobody lived long enough for this to be a problem.

We owe a big thanks to Trump and Putin for bringing the world back to the point in which the end of the world could begin at any moment.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Racism: Beyond Anything We Could Have Imagined


It is not for nothing that they call Harry Turtledove the master of alternative history. His wildly famous 1992 book Guns of the South was just one of his many works that explored how history might have been had a few small things changed its course—or maybe a few large things.

In Guns of the South, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had had superior weaponry over the Union. And not just a little bit superior: what if the Confederacy had AK-47s and grenade launchers? This is what happened in the novel when, in 1864, some mysterious men showed up, wearing what we call camouflage but for which the confederates had no name, and making AK-47s, which could be used either in semi- or fully-automatic mode, and an unlimited amount of ammunition available for very little money—and for nearly worthless confederate money, at that. The men revealed to General Robert E. Lee and other top confederates that they were from the future—they had a time machine that brought them from 2014 back exactly 150 years. The result is gory and unsurprising, though its details are exciting: Confederate troops storm Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln concedes defeat. The Confederacy just wants to be left alone, and the Union leaves them alone.

But there is a price to be paid. The mysterious camouflaged men told Lee that, if the Union had won the war, black people would eventually have enslaved white people. But what Lee and others eventually discover is that these men were lying about the future. They were a South African militia of white separatists who hated the very existence of black people. They were using a Confederate victory as a means of ensuring white supremacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Emancipation was already beginning in the Confederacy, and it was a great benefit to the economy. But the racists hated it any way—they wanted to have dominion over blacks, even if it bankrupted their confederacy.

The author portrays many Confederates as evil racists, but others, including the sergeant through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and including Lee, were moderates who admitted to themselves that even a Confederate victory would not ensure the indefinite continuation of slavery, which was despised by literally every other nation in the world. After Lee became a civilian, and ran for Confederate president, he campaigned for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The South African supremacists, of course, hated this, and they turned their weapons against the Confederacy for which they had just a couple of years earlier fought. They had overwhelming firepower advantage, but there were only a few hundred of them—racist splinter groups are always small, even in apartheid South Africa. The moderate confederates, principal among them Robert E. Lee, prevail over them and ease their way into racial equality.

Turtledove’s writing is clear and beautiful, sometimes formulaic but never poor. The twists of plot and the delightful characters even by themselves make the book good.

Why am I reviewing this old book? In 1992, neither Turtledove nor anyone else could imagine that the kind of fierce hatred of blacks that fueled South African apartheid could possibly exist in America. But it does. It is impossible to make an accurate count of how many racists there are in America. But when you consider how widespread and common the white power protests are, and, what is more, the sheer number of assault weapons they have built up, it is easy to believe that somewhere around a half million Americans are ready to take up arms against the rest of us in order to establish a White Supremacist Nation. And I believe that they would be willing to stage an act of terrorism every bit as bloody and violent as that of the Afrikaner racists in this novel. In 1992, Turtledove had to imagine a foreign source for a few hundred such racists; today, right here in America, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands.

That is, real history has turned out thousands of times worse than a novelist could have imagined it a little over a quarter century ago. It seems impossible to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will result from white hatred of blacks in America. Evolution has given us both good and bad instincts, and the intelligence to choose the good; sadly, I see no way in which intelligence and goodness can possibly prevail in this selfish and hostile nation that we have become.