source materials and references of a global humanoid, shared for no purpose

Posts tagged “darwinism

[VIDEO] What it means to be a Human: Stealing meat from Lions

A great example of why language evolved in Man. (more…)

[VIDEO] Professor David Logan talks about the five kinds of tribes that humans naturally form — in schools, workplaces, even the driver’s license bureau. By understanding our shared tribal tendencies, we can help lead each other to become better individuals.

[VIDEO] THE ECONOMIST: The Seventh Billion: Facts about the world population

Why wine drinking and monogamy go together


Tuesday, Feb. 01, 2011

Among the many jabs temperance advocates like to take at alcohol is that it promotes promiscuity. One glass over the line and we all know what comes next. Loveless sex, lecherous men and “fallen women.”

But what if I told you that wine-drinking cultures throughout history have tended to be more monogamous than their abstinent counterparts? What if polygyny – the social doctrine sanctioning multiple female partners for a man – tended to prevail in societies that did not imbibe?

That paradox was uncovered recently (more…)

You are but a HOLON of HUMANITY

holon (Greek: ὅλον, holon neuter form of ὅλος, holos “whole”) is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. (more…)

Why didn’t Indigenous N&S Americans develop technology at the same rates as Indigenous Europeans and Indigenous Asians did?


–written by Kanien:kaha’ka

“compare natives pre contact with europeans at the same period in history, the 15th century.

europeans got the wheel from the persian culture just as they got gunpowder from the chinese, glass from the sumerians and many other things. north america did not have these other cultures on the same land mass and so was more isolated. (more…)

The Amen Break and why a society “free to borrow and build upon the past is culturally richer then a controlled one” — Lawrence Lessig

“This fascinating, brilliant 20-minute video narrates the history of the “Amen Break,” a six-second drum sample from the b-side of a chart-topping single from 1969. This sample was used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music, and became the basis for drum-and-bass and jungle music — a six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures. Nate Harrison’s 2004 video is a meditation on the ownership of culture, the nature of art and creativity, and (more…)

Discovery opens door to possibility that a second line of earthly life has been found — a theorized “shadow biosphere” on Earth — life evolving from a different common ancestor from all we’ve known so far…

Bacteria stir debate about ‘shadow biosphere’


By Marc Kaufman

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 9:12 PM


All life on Earth – from microbes to elephants and us – requires the element phosphorus as one of its six components.

But now researchers have discovered a bacterium that appears to have replaced that life-enabling phosphorus with its toxic cousin arsenic, raising new and provocative questions about the origins and nature of life.

News of the discovery caused a scientific commotion this week, including calls to NASA from the White House asking whether a second line of earthly life has been found. (more…)

“Circular Argument” – because the conclusion essentially appears both at the beginning and the end of the argument, it creates an endless circle, never accomplishing anything of substance.

“hey, have you not heard that an anti-thesis of religion is in fact religion? When one hates a religion he in fact wants to create his own religion. So, he fucks himself too” – a response to rudhro’s ruminatoria

Begging the Question (Petitio Principii)

Fallacies of Presumption

By Austin Cline

Fallacy Name:
Begging the Question

Alternative Names:
Petitio Principii
Circular Argument
Circulus in Probando
Circulus in Demonstrando
Vicious Circle

Fallacy of Weak Induction > Fallacy of Presumption

This is the most basic and classic example of a Fallacy of Presumption, because it directly presumes the conclusion which is at question in the first place. This can also be known as a “Circular Argument” – because the conclusion essentially appears both at the beginning and the end of the argument, it creates an endless circle, never accomplishing anything of substance.

A good argument in support of a claim will offerindependent evidence or reasons to believe that claim. However, if you are assuming the truth of some portion of your conclusion, then your reasons are no longer independent: your reasons have become dependent upon the very point which is contested. The basic structure looks like this: (more…)

[VIDEO] HOW OUR ANCESTORS CAME INTO THE WORLD – underwater, maybe even with dolphin midwifery

this be nature’s own ‘baptism’



Aquatic Ape Theory

Elaine Morgan

“An aquatic Ape is a likely ancestor of humans in terms of primate behaviour, marine ecosystems and geophysical timing.”
– Prof. Derek Ellis, Dept. of Biology, Uni. of Victoria, Canada (more…)

[VIDEO] Why Bonobos Don’t Kill Each Other

July 2, 2010


Brian Hare, an assistant professor at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences at Duke University, and Vanessa Woods, a research scientist in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke, do comparative studies on the cognitive development of bonobo apes, chimpanzees and humans. Ms. Woods, 33, a former journalist from Australia, has just published a book about their marriage and work, “Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo.” We spoke last month after they had appeared at the World Science Festival in New York City. An edited version of the conversation follows:


A. Vanessa: By a series of happy accidents. For much of my 20s, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. So I went to Africa and did a little of everything. I worked with chimpanzees for a bit and then I did a little bit of filming and I worked a bit on children’s books.

When I met Brian in 2004, I was 27 and volunteering at a chimp sanctuary in Uganda. Brian was testing the chimpanzees’ capacity for cooperation and sharing.

Then Brian got invited to the Congo to perform the same experiments on bonobos, our other close ape relations. Would I come along as a helpmate? I hated the idea. My mother, the world’s biggest feminist, always said, “Never follow a man — do your own thing.” I knew almost nothing about bonobos. I thought: “Aren’t those the apes that have a lot of sex?”

Brian: That’s what most people know about bonobos: they have a lot of sex. That’s not what’s interesting about them. The No. 1 reason they are interesting is that they don’t kill each other. The question I was in Africa chasing was: why will a chimp get into a severe fight with another — perhaps kill or maim it — while a bonobo, in the same situation, won’t? I’m basically an anthropologist. And in looking at the psychological and social propensities of our close relatives, learning about their differences in behavior, maybe we’ll be able to make some inferences about what happened during human evolution.


A. Brian: The type of experiments that developmental psychologists try on human subjects to see how they’d behave in certain situations. With the apes, I designed tests and games where they could obtain treats — apples, bananas — if they engaged in acts of cooperation.

The chimps, it turned out, would only cooperate if they were teamed up with others of equal status. If you put them with subordinate or superior status chimps, they became intolerant. When you had equal-status chimps together on a test, they were able to solve conflicts of interest, negotiate successfully and recruit collaborators. But when we changed one simple thing, we’d crush their ability to cooperate. We took separate piles of treats and combined them into one. Immediately, the chimpanzees started competing with each other and all cooperation fell apart.

Later, when we were in the Congo, we posed the same question to the bonobos. The piles of food were merged. No problem. Everyone shared. My doctoral thesis adviser at Harvard, Richard Wrangham, thinks this may be because chimpanzees evolved in a situation of food scarcity while bonobos developed in the giant salad bowl of the Congo basin where there was abundance.

Vanessa: Another thing: bonobos are matriarchal. If it’s usual for female chimps to get pushed around and battered by males, bonobo females run things. Once, while in the Congo, I witnessed Tatango, this young male bonobo, start to do what the chimps in Uganda regularly did: he went up to the alpha female, Mimi, and backhanded her across the face. She gave him the most withering look. Within seconds, five unrelated females chased him into the forest. Poor guy. They almost took his testicles off. After that, he never made another problem. Bonobo females seem to know that if they stick together, the males can’t dominate.

Brian’s gender was actually a problem when we first arrived in the Congo. He walked right up to the bonobos, did all these loud displays, which usually fascinates chimpanzees and makes them want to play with you. The male bonobos were terrified of Brian and the female ones would have nothing to do with him. I had to run the experiments because they seemed to accept me more easily. Once that became clear, my role became larger than that of a “helpmate.” With time, the work became mine, too.


A. Brian: Well, we went to the semiwild. There’s this amazing conservationist, Claudine Andre, who founded a sanctuary in Kinshasa for bonobos orphaned by the bush meat trade. She’d convinced the Congolese to let her use this 100-acre wood with lily ponds and forests that once had been a bucolic retreat for Mobutu Sese Seko.

Working with the orphans in the sanctuary, they were much more like wild animals than the captive bonobos one might study at a zoo. They were obviously much easier to see and interact with than animals in the forest.


A. Brian: Tentative answers. The research is ongoing. Some of the differences between chimps and bonobos have to do with what happens to them during their development. Essentially bonobos and chimps have similar behaviors as youngsters. Like bonobos, juvenile chimps are very tolerant, peaceful. When they go through puberty, they change. So what happens to adolescent bonobos? Nothing! They don’t change. Their levels of play, their levels of sharing and sex, it all keeps going. They are Peter Pans.


A. Vanessa: Very. There are probably about 10,000 remaining in the wild. Nobody really knows. It’s hard to get in there and count them all.

There’s very little agriculture in the Congo. And a lot of hunting. Bush meat is how people get their protein. And unfortunately, bonobos are really prized meat for hunters because they live in communities. If you’ve found one, you’ve found thirty that you can shoot and kill all at the same time. Of course, bonobos aren’t the answer to feeding the Congolese people. There are 68 million Congolese and 10,000 bonobos. The people need aid, some kind of agricultural program so that the farming becomes sustainable, and peace.

Bonobo Society: Amicable, Amorous and Run by Females


Nature’s raucous bestiary rarely serves up good role models for human behavior, unless you happen to work on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. But there is one creature that stands out from the chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness: a little-known ape called the bonobo, or, less accurately, the pygmy chimpanzee. Before bonobos can be fully appreciated, however, two human prejudices must be overcome. The first is, fellows, the female bonobo is the dominant sex, though the dominance is so mild and unobnoxious that some researchers view bonobo society as a matter of “co-dominance,” or equality between the sexes. Fancy that.

The second hurdle is human squeamishness about what in the 80s were called PDAs, or public displays of affection, in this case very graphic ones. Bonobos lubricate the gears of social harmony with sex, in all possible permutations and combinations: males with females, males with males, females with females, and even infants with adults. The sexual acts include intercourse, genital-to-genital rubbing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and even a practice that people once thought they had a patent on: French kissing.

Bonobos use sex to appease, to bond, to make up after a fight, to ease tensions, to cement alliances. Humans generally wait until after a nice meal to make love; bonobos do it beorehand, to alleviate the stress and competitiveness often seen among animals when they encounter a source of food.

Lest this all sound like a nonstop Caligulean orgy, Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta who is the author of “Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape,” emphasizes otherwise. “Sex is there, it’s pervasive, it’s critical, and bonobo society would collapse without it,” he said in an interview. “But it’s not what people think it is. It’s not driven by orgasm or seeking release. Nor is it often reproductively driven. Sex for a bonobo is casual, it’s quick and once you’re used to watching it, it begins to look like any other social interaction.” The new book, with photographs by Frans Lanting, will be published in May by the University of California Press. In “Bonobo,” de Waal draws upon his own research as well as that of many other primatologists to sketch a portrait of a species much less familiar to most people than are the other great apes — the gorilla, the orangutan and the so-called common chimpanzee. The bonobo, found in the dense equatorial rain forests of Zaire, was not officially discovered until 1929, long after the other apes had been described in the scientific literature.

Even today there are only about 100 in zoos around the country, compared with the many thousands of chimpanzees in captivity. Bonobos are closely related to chimpanzees, but they have a more graceful and slender build, with smaller heads, slimmer necks, longer legs and less burly upper torsos. When standing or walking upright, bonobos have straighter backs than do the chimpanzees, and so assume a more humanlike posture.

Far more dramatic than their physical differences are their behavioral distinctions. Bonobos are much less aggressive and hot-tempered than are chimpanzees, and are not nearly as prone to physical violence. They are less obsessed with power and status than are their chimpanzee cousins, and more consumed with Eros.

As de Waal puts it in his book, “The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex.” Or more coyly, chimpanzees are from Mars, bonobos are from Venus. All of which has relevance for understanding the roots of human nature. De Waal seeks to correct the image of humanity’s ancestors as invariably chimpanzee-like, driven by aggression, hierarchical machinations, hunting, warfare and male dominance. He points out that bonobos are as genetically close to humans as are chimpanzees, and that both are astonishingly similar to mankind, sharing at least 98 percent of humans’ DNA. “The take-home message is, there’s more flexibility in our lineage than we thought,” de Waal said. “Bonobos are just as close to us as are chimpanzees, so we can’t push them aside.”

Indeed, humans appear to possess at least some bonobo-like characteristics, particularly the extracurricular use of sex beyond that needed for reproduction, and perhaps a more robust capacity for cooperation than some die-hard social Darwinists might care to admit. One unusual aspect of bonobo society is the ability of females to form strong alliances with other unrelated females. In most primates, the males leave their birthplaces on reaching maturity as a means of avoiding incest, and so the females that form the social core are knit together by kinship. Among bonobos, females disperse at adolescence, and have to insinuate themselves into a group of strangers. They make friends with sexual overtures, and are particularly solicitous of the resident females.

The constructed sisterhood appears to give females a slight edge over resident males, who, though they may be related to one another, do not tend to act as an organized alliance. For example, the females usually have priority when it comes to eating, and they will stick up for one another should the bigger and more muscular male try to act aggressively. Female alliances may have arisen to counter the threat of infanticide by males, which is quite common in other species, including the chimpanzee, but has never been observed among bonobos.

De Waal said that many men grow indignant when they learn of the bonobo’s social structure. “After one of my talks, a famous German professor jumped up and said, ‘What is wrong with these males?’ ” he recalled. Yet de Waal said the bonobo males might not have reason to rebel. “They seem to be in a perfectly good situation,” he said. “The females have sex with them all the time, and they don’t have to fight over it so much among themselves. I’m not sure they’ve lost anything, except for their dominance.”

Bonobo Sex and Society

The behavior of a close relative challenges assumptions about male supremacy in human evolution

lesbian bonobos

by Frans B. M. de Waal

(SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN March 1995  pp. 82-88)

At a juncture in history during which women are seeking equality with men, science arrives with a belated gift to the feminist movement. Male-biased evolutionary scenarios– Man the Hunter, Man the Toolmaker and so on–are being challenged by the discovery that females play a central, perhaps even dominant, role in the social life of one of our nearest relatives. In the past few years many strands of knowledge have come together concerning a relatively unknown ape with an unorthodox repertoire of behavior: the bonobo.

The bonobo is one of the last large mammals to be found by science. The creature was discovered in 1929 in a Belgian colonial museum, far from its lush African habitat. A German anatomist, Ernst Schwarz, was scrutinizing a skull that had been ascribed to a juvenile chimpanzee because of its small size, when he realized that it belonged to an adult. Schwarz declared that he had stumbled on a new subspecies of chimpanzee. But soon the animal was assigned the status of an entirely distinct species within the same genus as the chimpanzee, Pan. The bonobo was officially classified as Pan paniscus, or the diminutive Pan. But I believe a different label might have been selected had the discoverers known then what we know now. The old taxonomic name of the chimpanzee, P. satyrus– which refers to the myth of apes as lustful satyrs–would have been perfect for the bonobo.

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobo’s rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

A Near Relative

This finding commands attention because the bonobo shares more than 98 percent of our genetic profile, making it as close to a human as, say, a fox is to a dog. The split between the human line of ancestry and the line of the chimpanzee and the bonobo is believed to have occurred a mere eight million years ago. The subsequent divergence of the chimpanzee and the bonobo lines came much later, perhaps prompted by the chimpanzee’s need to adapt to relatively open, dry habitats [see "East Side Story: The Origin of Humankind," by Yves Coppens; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, May 1994]. In contrast, bonobos probably never left the protection of the trees. Their present range lies in humid forests south of the Zaire River, where perhaps fewer than 10,000 bonobos survive. (Given the species’ slow rate of reproduction, the rapid destruction of its tropical habitat and the political instability of central Africa, there is reason for much concern about its future.)


If this evolutionary scenario of ecological continuity is true, the bonobo may have undergone less transformation than either humans or chimpanzees. It could most closely resemble the common ancestor of all three modern species. Indeed, in the 1930s Harold J. Coolidge–the American anatomist who gave the bonobo its eventual taxonomic status–suggested that the animal might be most similar to the primogenitor, since its anatomy is less specialized than is the chimpanzee’s. Bonobo body proportions have been compared with those of the australopithecines, a form of prehuman. When the apes stand or walk upright, they look as if they stepped straight out of an artist’s impression of early hominids.

Not too long ago the savanna baboon was regarded as the best living model of the human ancestor. That primate is adapted to the kinds of ecological conditions that prehumans may have faced after descending from the trees. But in the late 1970s, chimpanzees, which are much more closely related to humans, became the model of choice. Traits that are observed in chimpanzees–including cooperative hunting, food sharing, tool use, power politics and primitive warfare–were absent or not as developed in baboons. In the laboratory the apes have been able to learn sign language and to recognize themselves in a mirror, a sign of self-awareness not yet demonstrated in monkeys.

Although selecting the chimpanzee as the touchstone of hominid evolution represented a great improvement, at least one aspect of the former model did not need to be revised: male superiority remained the natural state of affairs. In both baboons and chimpanzees, males are conspicuously dominant over females; they reign supremely and often brutally. It is highly unusual for a fully grown male chimpanzee to be dominated by any female.

Enter the bonobo. Despite their common name–the pygmy chimpanzee–bonobos cannot be distinguished from the chimpanzee by size. Adult males of the smallest subspecies of chimpanzee weigh some 43 kilograms (95 pounds) and females 33 kilograms (73 pounds), about the same as bonobos. Although female bonobos are much smaller than the males, they seem to rule.

Graceful Apes

In physique, a bonobo is as different from a chimpanzee as a Concorde is from a Boeing 747. I do not wish to offend any chimpanzees, but bonobos have more style. The bonobo, with its long legs and small head atop narrow shoulders, has a more gracile build than does a chimpanzee. Bonobo lips are reddish in a black face, the ears small and the nostrils almost as wide as a gorilla’s. These primates also have a flatter, more open face with a higher forehead than the chimpanzee’s and–to top it all off–an attractive coiffure with long, fine, black hair neatly parted in the middle. Like chimpanzees, female bonobos nurse and carry around their young for up to five years. By the age of seven the offspring reach adolescence. Wild females give birth for the first time at 13 or 14 years of age, becoming full grown by about 15. A bonobo’s longevity is unknown, but judging by the chimpanzee it may be older than 40 in the wild and close to 60 in captivity.


Fruit is central to the diets of both wild bonobos and chimpanzees. The former supplement with more pith from herbaceous plants, and the latter add meat. Although bonobos do eat invertebrates and occasionally capture and eat small vertebrates, including mammals, their diet seems to contain relatively little animal protein. Unlike chimpanzees, they have not been observed to hunt monkeys. Whereas chimpanzees use a rich array of strategies to obtain foods–from cracking nuts with stone tools to fishing for ants and termites with sticks–tool use in wild bonobos seems undeveloped. (Captive bonobos use tools skillfully.) Apparently as intelligent as chimpanzees, bonobos have, however, a far more sensitive temperament. During World War II bombing of Hellabrun, Germany, the bonobos in a nearby zoo all died of fright from the noise; the chimpanzees were unaffected.

Bonobos are also imaginative in play. I have watched captive bonobos engage in “blindman’s buff.” A bonobo covers her eyes with a banana leaf or an arm or by sticking two fingers in her eyes. Thus handicapped, she stumbles around on a climbing frame, bumping into others or almost falling. She seems to be imposing a rule on herself: “I cannot look until I lose my balance.” Other apes and monkeys also indulge in this game, but I have never seen it performed with such dedication and concentration as by bonobos. Juvenile bonobos are incurably playful and like to make funny faces, sometimes in long solitary pantomimes and at other times while tickling one another. Bonobos are, however, more controlled in expressing their emotions– whether it be joy, sorrow, excitement or anger–than are the extroverted chimpanzees. Male chimpanzees often engage in spectacular charging displays in which they show off their strength: throwing rocks, breaking branches and uprooting small trees in the process. They keep up these noisy performances for many minutes, during which most other members of the group wisely stay out of their way. Male bonobos, on the other hand, usually limit displays to a brief run while dragging a few branches behind them.

Both primates signal emotions and intentions through facial expressions and hand gestures, many of which are also present in the nonverbal communication of humans. For example, bonobos will beg by stretching out an open hand (or, sometimes, a foot) to a possessor of food and will pout their lips and make whimpering sounds if the effort is unsuccessful. But bonobos make different sounds than chimpanzees do. The renowned low-pitched, extended “huuu- huuu” pant-hooting of the latter contrasts with the rather sharp, high-pitched barking sounds of the bonobo.

Love, Not War

My own interest in bonobos came not from an inherent fascination with their charms but from research on aggressive behavior in primates. I was particularly intrigued with the aftermath of conflict. After two chimpanzees have fought, for instance, they may come together for a hug and mouth-to-mouth kiss. Assuming that such reunions serve to restore peace and harmony, I labeled them reconciliations.


Any species that combines close bonds with a potential for conflict needs such conciliatory mechanisms. Thinking how much faster marriages would break up if people had no way of compensating for hurting each other, I set out to investigate such mechanisms in several primates, including bonobos. Although I expected to see peacemaking in these apes, too, I was little prepared for the form it would take.

For my study, which began in 1983, I chose the San Diego Zoo. At the time, it housed the world’s largest captive bonobo colony–10 members divided into three groups. I spent entire days in front of the enclosure with a video camera, which was switched on at feeding time. As soon as a caretaker approached the enclosure with food, the males would develop erections. Even before the food was thrown into the area, the bonobos would be inviting each other for sex: males would invite females, and females would invite males and other females.

Sex, it turned out, is the key to the social life of the bonobo. The first suggestion that the sexual behavior of bonobos is different had come from observations at European zoos. Wrapping their findings in Latin, primatologists Eduard Tratz and Heinz Heck reported in 1954 that the chimpanzees at Hellabrun mated more canum (like dogs) and bonobos more hominum (like people). In those days, face-to- face copulation was considered uniquely human, a cultural innovation that needed to be taught to preliterate people (hence the term “missionary position”). These early studies, written in German, were ignored by the international scientific establishment. The bonobo’s humanlike sexuality needed to be rediscovered in the 1970s before it became accepted as characteristic of the species.

Bonobos become sexually aroused remarkably easily, and they express this excitement in a variety of mounting positions and genital contacts. Although chimpanzees virtually never adopt face-to-face positions, bonobos do so in one out of three copulations in the wild. Furthermore, the frontal orientation of the bonobo vulva and clitoris strongly suggest that the female genitalia are adapted for this position.

Another similarity with humans is increased female sexual receptivity. The tumescent phase of the female’s genitals, resulting in a pink swelling that signals willingness to mate, covers a much longer part of estrus in bonobos than in chimpanzees. Instead of a few days out of her cycle, the female bonobo is almost continuously sexually attractive and active.

Perhaps the bonobo’s most typical sexual pattern, undocumented in any other primate, is genito-genital rubbing (or GG rubbing) between adult females. One female facing another clings with arms and legs to a partner that, standing on both hands and feet, lifts her off the ground. The two females then rub their genital swellings laterally together, emitting grins and squeals that probably reflect orgasmic experiences. (Laboratory experiments on stump- tailed macaques have demonstrated that women are not the only female primates capable of physiological orgasm.) Male bonobos, too, may engage in pseudocopulation but generally perform a variation. Standing back to back, one male briefly rubs his scrotum against the buttocks of another. They also practice so-called penis-fencing, in which two males hang face to face from a branch while rubbing their erect penises together. The diversity of erotic contacts in bonobos includes sporadic oral sex, massage of another individual’s genitals and intense tongue-kissing. Lest this leave the impression of a pathologically oversexed species, I must add, based on hundreds of hours of watching bonobos, that their sexual activity is rather casual and relaxed. It appears to be a completely natural part of their group life. Like people, bonobos engage in sex only occasionally, not continuously. Furthermore, with the average copulation lasting 13 seconds, sexual contact in bonobos is rather quick by human standards.

That sex is connected to feeding, and even appears to make food sharing possible, has been observed not only in zoos but also in the wild. Nancy Thompson-Handler, then at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, saw bonobos in Zaire’s Lomako Forest engage in sex after they had entered trees loaded with ripe figs or when one among them had captured a prey animal, such as a small forest duiker. The flurry of sexual contacts would last for five to 10 minutes, after which the apes would settle down to consume the food. One explanation for the sexual activity at feeding time could be that excitement over food translates into sexual arousal. This idea may be partly true. Yet another motivation is probably the real cause: competition. There are two reasons to believe sexual activity is the bonobo’s answer to avoiding conflict.

First, anything, not just food, that arouses the interest of more than one bonobo at a time tends to result in sexual contact. If two bonobos approach a cardboard box thrown into their enclosure, they will briefly mount each other before playing with the box. Such situations lead to squabbles in most other species. But bonobos are quite tolerant, perhaps because they use sex to divert attention and to diffuse tension. Second, bonobo sex often occurs in aggressive contexts totally unrelated to food. A jealous male might chase another away from a female, after which the two males reunite and engage in scrotal rubbing. Or after a female hits a juvenile, the latter’s mother may lunge at the aggressor, an action that is immediately followed by genital rubbing between the two adults.

I once observed a young male, Kako, inadvertently blocking an older, female juvenile, Leslie, from moving along a branch. First, Leslie pushed him; Kako, who was not very confident in trees, tightened his grip, grinning nervously. Next Leslie gnawed on one of his hands, presumably to loosen his grasp. Kako uttered a sharp peep and stayed put. Then Leslie rubbed her vulva against his shoulder. This gesture calmed Kako, and he moved along the branch. It seemed that Leslie had been very close to using force but instead had reassured both herself and Kako with sexual contact.

During reconciliations, bonobos use the same sexual repertoire as they do during feeding time. Based on an analysis of many such incidents, my study yielded the first solid evidence for sexual behavior as a mechanism to overcome aggression. Not that this function is absent in other animals–or in humans, for that matter–but the art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations, including between juveniles and adults. The need for peaceful coexistence is obviously not restricted to adult heterosexual pairs.

Female Alliance

Apart from maintaining harmony, sex is also involved in creating the singular social structure of the bonobo. This use of sex becomes clear when studying bonobos in the wild. Field research on bonobos started only in the mid-1970s, more than a decade after the most important studies on wild chimpanzees had been initiated. In terms of continuity and invested (wo)manpower, the chimpanzee projects of Jane Goodall and Toshisada Nishida, both in Tanzania, are unparalleled. But bonobo research by Takayoshi Kano and others of Kyoto University is now two decades under way at Wamba in Zaire and is beginning to show the same payoffs. Both bonobos and chimpanzees live in so-called fission- fusion societies. The apes move alone or in small parties of a few individuals at a time, the composition of which changes constantly. Several bonobos traveling together in the morning might meet another group in the forest, whereupon one individual from the first group wanders off with others from the second group, while those left behind forage together. All associations, except the one between mother and dependent offspring, are of a temporary character.


Initially this flexibility baffled investigators, making them wonder if these apes formed any social groups with stable membership. After years of documenting the travels of chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains, Nishida first reported that they form large communities: all members of one community mix freely in ever changing parties, but members of different communities never gather. Later, Goodall added territoriality to this picture. That is, not only do communities not mix, but males of different chimpanzee communities engage in lethal battles. In both bonobos and chimpanzees, males stay in their natal group, whereas females tend to migrate during adolescence. As a result, the senior males of a chimpanzee or bonobo group have known all junior males since birth, and all junior males have grown up together. Females, on the other hand, transfer to an unfamiliar and often hostile group where they may know no one. A chief difference between chimpanzee and bonobo societies is the way in which young females integrate into their new community.

On arrival in another community, young bonobo females at Wamba single out one or two senior resident females for special attention, using frequent GG rubbing and grooming to establish a relation. If the residents reciprocate, close associations are set up, and the younger female gradually becomes accepted into the group. After producing her first offspring, the young female’s position becomes more stable and central. Eventually the cycle repeats with younger immigrants, in turn, seeking a good relation with the now established female. Sex thus smooths the migrant’s entrance into the community of females, which is much more close-knit in the bonobo than in the chimpanzee.

Bonobo males remain attached to their mothers all their lives, following them through the forest and being dependent on them for protection in aggressive encounters with other males. As a result, the highest-ranking males of a bonobo community tend to be sons of important females. What a contrast with chimpanzees! Male chimpanzees fight their own battles, often relying on the support of other males. Furthermore, adult male chimpanzees travel together in same-sex parties, grooming each other frequently. Males form a distinct social hierarchy with high levels of both competition and association. Given the need to stick together against males of neighboring communities, their bonding is not surprising: failure to form a united front might result in the loss of lives and territory. The danger of being male is reflected in the adult sex ratio of chimpanzee populations, with considerably fewer males than females.

Serious conflict between bonobo groups has been witnessed in the field, but it seems quite rare. On the contrary, reports exist of peaceable mingling, including mutual sex and grooming, between what appear to be different communities. If intergroup combat is indeed unusual, it may explain the lower rate of all-male associations. Rather than being male- bonded, bonobo society gives the impression of being female- bonded, with even adult males relying on their mothers instead of on other males. No wonder Kano calls mothers the “core” of bonobo society. The bonding among female bonobos violates a fairly general rule, outlined by Harvard University anthropologist Richard W. Wrangham, that the sex that stays in the natal group develops the strongest mutual bonds. Bonding among male chimpanzees follows naturally because they remain in the community of their birth. The same is true for female kinship bonding in Old World monkeys, such as macaques and baboons, where males are the migratory sex.

Bonobos are unique in that the migratory sex, females, strongly bond with same-sex strangers later in life. In setting up an artificial sisterhood, bonobos can be said to be secondarily bonded. (Kinship bonds are said to be primary.) Although we now know HOW this happens–through the use of sexual contact and grooming–we do not yet know WHY bonobos and chimpanzees differ in this respect. The answer may lie in the different ecological environments of bonobos and chimpanzees–such as the abundance and quality of food in the forest. But it is uncertain if such explanations will suffice. Bonobo society is, however, not only female-centered but also appears to be female-dominated. Bonobo specialists, while long suspecting such a reality, have been reluctant to make the controversial claim. But in 1992, at the 14th Congress of the International Primatological Society in Strasbourg, investigators of both captive and wild bonobos presented data that left little doubt about the issue. Amy R. Parish of the University of California at Davis reported on food competition in identical groups (one adult male and two adult females) of chimpanzees and bonobos at the Stuttgart Zoo. Honey was provided in a “termite hill” from which it could be extracted by dipping sticks into a small hole. As soon as honey was made available, the male chimpanzee would make a charging display through the enclosure and claim everything for himself. Only when his appetite was satisfied would he let the females fish for honey. In the bonobo group, it was the females that approached the honey first. After having engaged in some GG rubbing, they would feed together, taking turns with virtually no competition between them. The male might make as many charging displays as he wanted; the females were not intimidated and ignored the commotion. Observers at the Belgian animal park of Planckendael, which currently has the most naturalistic bonobo colony, reported similar findings. If a male bonobo tried to harass a female, all females would band together to chase him off. Because females appeared more successful in dominating males when they were together than on their own, their close association and frequent genital rubbing may represent an alliance. Females may bond so as to outcompete members of the individually stronger sex.

The fact that they manage to do so not only in captivity is evident from zoologist Takeshi Furuichi’s summary of the relation between the sexes at Wamba, where bonobos are enticed out of the forest with sugarcane. “Males usually appeared at the feeding site first, but they surrendered preferred positions when the females appeared. It seemed that males appeared first not because they were dominant, but because they had to feed before the arrival of females,” Furuichi reported at Strasbourg. Occasionally, the role of sex in relation to food is taken one step further, bringing bonobos very close to humans in their behavior. It has been speculated by anthropologists– including C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University and Helen Fisher of Rutgers University–that sex is partially separated from reproduction in our species because it serves to cement mutually profitable relationships between men and women. The human female’s capacity to mate throughout her cycle and her strong sex drive allow her to exchange sex for male commitment and paternal care, thus giving rise to the nuclear family.

This arrangement is thought to be favored by natural selection because it allows women to raise more offspring than they could if they were on their own. Although bonobos clearly do not establish the exclusive heterosexual bonds characteristic of our species, their behavior does fit important elements of this model. A female bonobo shows extended receptivity and uses sex to obtain a male’s favors when–usually because of youth–she is too low in social status to dominate him. At the San Diego Zoo, I observed that if Loretta was in a sexually attractive state, she would not hesitate to approach the adult male, Vernon, if he had food. Presenting herself to Vernon, she would mate with him and make high- pitched food calls while taking over his entire bundle of branches and leaves. When Loretta had no genital swelling, she would wait until Vernon was ready to share. Primatologist Suehisa Kuroda reports similar exchanges at Wamba: “A young female approached a male, who was eating sugarcane. They copulated in short order, whereupon she took one of the two canes held by him and left.” Despite such quid pro quo between the sexes, there are no indications that bonobos form humanlike nuclear families. The burden of raising offspring appears to rest entirely on the female’s shoulders. In fact, nuclear families are probably incompatible with the diverse use of sex found in bonobos. If our ancestors started out with a sex life similar to that of bonobos, the evolution of the family would have required dramatic change. Human family life implies paternal investment, which is unlikely to develop unless males can be reasonably certain that they are caring for their own, not someone else’s, offspring. Bonobo society lacks any such guarantee, but humans protect the integrity of their family units through all kinds of moral restrictions and taboos. Thus, although our species is characterized by an extraordinary interest in sex, there are no societies in which people engage in it at the drop of a hat (or a cardboard box, as the case may be). A sense of shame and a desire for domestic privacy are typical human concepts related to the evolution and cultural bolstering of the family.

Yet no degree of moralizing can make sex disappear from every realm of human life that does not relate to the nuclear family. The bonobo’s behavioral peculiarities may help us understand the role of sex and may have serious implications for models of human society. Just imagine that we had never heard of chimpanzees or baboons and had known bonobos first. We would at present most likely believe that early hominids lived in female- centered societies, in which sex served important social functions and in which warfare was rare or absent. In the end, perhaps the most successful reconstruction of our past will be based not on chimpanzees or even on bonobos but on a three-way comparison of chimpanzees, bonobos and humans.

Social Organization among Various Primates



Bonobo communities are peace-loving and generally egalitarian. The strongest social bonds are those among females, although females also bond with males. The status of a male depends on the position of his mother, to whom he remains closely bonded for her entire life.


In chimpanzee groups the strongest bonds are established between the males in order to hunt and to protect their shared territory. The females live in overlapping home ranges within this territory but are not strongly bonded to other females or to any one male.


Gibbons establish monogamous, egalitarian relations, and one couple will maintain a territory to the exclusion of other pairs.


Human society is the most diverse among the primates. Males unite for cooperative ventures, whereas females also bond with those of their own sex. Monogamy, polygamy and polyandry are all in evidence.


The social organization of gorillas provides a clear example of polygamy. Usually a single male maintains a range for his family unit, which contains several females. The strongest bonds are those between the male and his females.


Orangutans live solitary lives with little bonding in evidence. Male orangutans are intolerant of one another. In his prime, a single male establishes a large territory, within which live several females. Each female has her own, separate home range.

FRANS B. M. de WAAL was trained as an ethologist in the European tradition, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Utrecht in 1977. After a six-year study of the chimpanzee colony at the Arnhem Zoo, he moved to the U.S. in 1981 to work on other primate species, including bonobos. He is now a research professor at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta and professor of psychology at Emory University.

[VIDEO] RSA ANIMATE: we are Homo Empathicus — author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.

This lecture was given at the Royal Society of Arts in London (The RSA) and was commissioned by them as part of their “RSAnimation” series of videos.

“Your sense of being a separate entity from the rest of the universe is just an illusion. You were born from the fundamental laws of the universe, time, space, particles, atoms, molecules and cells. You are nothing more or nothing less than the universe itself. Your brain is merely observing and unfolding the universe using your physical body as the vantage point. Think of yourself as nothing more than a complex subprogram within the game “Universe 1.0″.”

–Anon from Helsinki

Jeremy Rifkin

Author of ‘The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis

January 11, 2010

‘The Empathic Civilization': Rethinking Human Nature in the Biosphere Era

Two spectacular failures, separated by only 18 months, marked the end of the modern era. In July 2008, the price of oil on world markets peaked at $147/ barrel, inflation soared, the price of everything from food to gasoline skyrocketed, and the global economic engine shut off. Growing demand in the developed nations, as well as in China, India, and other emerging economies, for diminishing fossil fuels precipitated the crisis. Purchasing power plummeted and the global economy collapsed. That was the earthquake that tore asunder the industrial age built on and propelled by fossil fuels. The failure of the financial markets two months later was merely the aftershock. The fossil fuel energies that make up the industrial way of life are sunsetting and the industrial infrastructure is now on life support.

In December 2009, world leaders from 192 countries assembled in Copenhagen to address the question of how to handle the accumulated entropy bill of the fossil fuel based industrial revolution-the spent C0₂ that is heating up the planet and careening the earth into a catastrophic shift in climate. After years of preparation, the negotiations broke down and world leaders were unable to reach a formal accord.

Neither the world’s political or business leaders anticipated the economic debacle of July 2008, nor were they able to cobble together a sufficient plan for economic recovery in the months since. They were equally inept at addressing the issue of climate change, despite the fact that the scientific community warns that is poses the greatest threat to our species in its history, that we are running out of time, and that we may even be facing the prospect of our own extinction.

The problem runs deeper than the issue of finding new ways to regulate the market or imposing legally binding global green house gas emission reduction targets. The real crisis lies in the set of assumptions about human nature that governs the behavior of world leaders–assumptions that were spawned during the Enlightenment more than 200 years ago at the dawn of the modern market economy and the emergence of the nation state era.

The Enlightenment thinkers–John Locke, Adam Smith, Marquis de Condorcet et. al.–took umbrage with the Medieval Christian world view that saw human nature as fallen and depraved and that looked to salvation in the next world through God’s grace. They preferred to cast their lot with the idea that human beings’ essential nature is rational, detached, autonomous, acquisitive and utilitarian and argued that individual salvation lies in unlimited material progress here on Earth.

The Enlightenment notions about human nature were reflected in the newly minted nation-state whose raison d’être was to protect private property relations and stimulate market forces as well as act as a surrogate of the collective self-interest of the citizenry in the international arena. Like individuals, nation-states were considered to be autonomous agents embroiled in a relentless battle with other sovereign nations in the pursuit of material gains.

It was these very assumptions that provided the philosophical underpinnings for a geopolitical frame of reference that accompanied the first and second industrial revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. These beliefs about human nature came to the fore in the aftermath of the global economic meltdown and in the boisterous and acrimonious confrontations in the meeting rooms in Copenhagen, with potentially disastrous consequences for the future of humanity and the planet.

If human nature is as the Enlightenment philosophers claimed, then we are likely doomed. It is impossible to imagine how we might create a sustainable global economy and restore the biosphere to health if each and every one of us is, at the core of our biology, an autonomous agent and a self-centered and materialistic being.

Recent discoveries in brain science and child development, however, are forcing us to rethink these long-held shibboleths about human nature. Biologists and cognitive neuroscientists are discovering mirror-neurons–the so-called empathy neurons–that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own. We are, it appears, the most social of animals and seek intimate participation and companionship with our fellows.

Social scientists, in turn, are beginning to reexamine human history from an empathic lens and, in the process, discovering previously hidden strands of the human narrative which suggests that human evolution is measured not only by the expansion of power over nature, but also by the intensification and extension of empathy to more diverse others across broader temporal and spatial domains. The growing scientific evidence that we are a fundamentally empathic species has profound and far-reaching consequences for society, and may well determine our fate as a species.

What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global empathic consciousness and in less than a generation if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The question becomes this: what is the mechanism that allows empathic sensitivity to mature and consciousness to expand through history?

The pivotal turning points in human consciousness occur when new energy regimes converge with new communications revolutions, creating new economic eras. The new communications revolutions become the command and control mechanisms for structuring, organizing and managing more complex civilizations that the new energy regimes make possible. For example, in the early modern age, print communication became the means to organize and manage the technologies, organizations, and infrastructure of the coal, steam, and rail revolution. It would have been impossible to administer the first industrial revolution using script and codex.

Communication revolutions not only manage new, more complex energy regimes, but also change human consciousness in the process. Forager/hunter societies relied on oral communications and their consciousness was mythologically constructed. The great hydraulic agricultural civilizations were, for the most part, organized around script communication and steeped in theological consciousness. The first industrial revolution of the 19th century was managed by print communication and ushered in ideological consciousness. Electronic communication became the command and control mechanism for arranging the second industrial revolution in the 20th century and spawned psychological consciousness.

Each more sophisticated communication revolution brings together more diverse people in increasingly more expansive and varied social networks. Oral communication has only limited temporal and spatial reach while script, print and electronic communications each extend the range and depth of human social interaction.

By extending the central nervous system of each individual and the society as a whole, communication revolutions provide an evermore inclusive playing field for empathy to mature and consciousness to expand. For example, during the period of the great hydraulic agricultural civilizations characterized by script and theological consciousness, empathic sensitivity broadened from tribal blood ties to associational ties based on common religious affiliation. Jews came to empathize with Jews, Christians with Christians, Muslims with Muslims, etc. In the first industrial revolution characterized by print and ideological consciousness, empathic sensibility extended to national borders, with Americans empathizing with Americans, Germans with Germans, Japanese with Japanese and so on. In the second industrial revolution, characterized by electronic communication and psychological consciousness, individuals began to identify with like-minded others.

Today, we are on the cusp of another historic convergence of energy and communication–a third industrial revolution–that could extend empathic sensibility to the biosphere itself and all of life on Earth. The distributed Internet revolution is coming together with distributed renewable energies, making possible a sustainable, post-carbon economy that is both globally connected and locally managed.

In the 21st century, hundreds of millions–and eventually billions–of human beings will transform their buildings into power plants to harvest renewable energies on site, store those energies in the form of hydrogen and share electricity, peer-to-peer, across local, regional, national and continental inter-grids that act much like the Internet. The open source sharing of energy, like open source sharing of information, will give rise to collaborative energy spaces–not unlike the collaborative social spaces that currently exist on the Internet.

When every family and business comes to take responsibility for its own small swath of the biosphere by harnessing renewable energy and sharing it with millions of others on smart power grids that stretch across continents, we become intimately interconnected at the most basic level of earthly existence by jointly stewarding the energy that bathes the planet and sustains all of life.

The new distributed communication revolution not only organizes distributed renewable energies, but also changes human consciousness. The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history.

Whether in fact we will begin to empathize as a species will depend on how we use the new distributed communication medium. While distributed communications technologies-and, soon, distributed renewable energies – are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. We talk breathlessly about access and inclusion in a global communications network but speak little of exactly why we want to communicate with one another on such a planetary scale. What’s sorely missing is an overarching reason that billions of human beings should be increasingly connected. Toward what end? The only feeble explanations thus far offered are to share information, be entertained, advance commercial exchange and speed the globalization of the economy. All the above, while relevant, nonetheless seem insufficient to justify why nearly seven billion human beings should be connected and mutually embedded in a globalized society. The idea of even billion individual connections, absent any overall unifying purpose, seems a colossal waste of human energy. More important, making global connections without any real transcendent purpose risks a narrowing rather than an expanding of human consciousness. But what if our distributed global communication networks were put to the task of helping us re-participate in deep communion with the common biosphere that sustains all of our lives?

The biosphere is the narrow band that extends some forty miles from the ocean floor to outer space where living creatures and the Earth’s geochemical processes interact to sustain each other. We are learning that the biosphere functions like an indivisible organism. It is the continuous symbiotic relationships between every living creature and between living creatures and the geochemical processes that ensure the survival of the planetary organism and the individual species that live within its biospheric envelope. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighborhoods and communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell. The Third Industrial Revolution offers just such an opportunity.

If we can harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet, we will have moved beyond the detached, self-interested and utilitarian philosophical assumptions that accompanied national markets and nation state governance and into a new era of biosphere consciousness. We leave the old world of geopolitics behind and enter into a new world of biosphere politics, with new forms of governance emerging to accompany our new biosphere awareness.

The Third Industrial Revolution and the new era of distributed capitalism allow us to sculpt a new approach to globalization, this time emphasizing continentalization from the bottom up. Because renewable energies are more or less equally distributed around the world, every region is potentially amply endowed with the power it needs to be relatively self-sufficient and sustainable in its lifestyle, while at the same time interconnected via smart grids to other regions across countries and continents.

When every community is locally empowered, both figuratively and literally, it can engage directly in regional, transnational, continental, and limited global trade without the severe restrictions that are imposed by the geopolitics that oversee elite fossil fuels and uranium energy distribution.

Continentalization is already bringing with it a new form of governance. The nation-state, which grew up alongside the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, and provided the regulatory mechanism for managing an energy regime whose reach was the geosphere, is ill suited for a Third Industrial Revolution whose domain is the biosphere. Distributed renewable energies generated locally and regionally and shared openly–peer to peer–across vast contiguous land masses connected by intelligent utility networks and smart logistics and supply chains favor a seamless network of governing institutions that span entire continents.

The European Union is the first continental governing institution of the Third Industrial Revolution era. The EU is already beginning to put in place the infrastructure for a European-wide energy regime, along with the codes, regulations, and standards to effectively operate a seamless transport, communications, and energy grid that will stretch from the Irish Sea to the doorsteps of Russia by midcentury. Asian, African, and Latin American continental political unions are also in the making and will likely be the premier governing institutions on their respective continents by 2050.

In this new era of distributed energy, governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage. Just as habitats function within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the biosphere in a web of interrelationships, governing institutions will similarly function in a collaborative network of relationships with localities, regions, and nations all embedded within the continent as a whole. This new complex political organism operates like the biosphere it attends, synergistically and reciprocally. This is biosphere politics.

The new biosphere politics transcends traditional right/left distinctions so characteristic of the geopolitics of the modern market economy and nation-state era. The new divide is generational and contrasts the traditional top-down model of structuring family life, education, commerce, and governance with a younger generation whose thinking is more relational and distributed, whose nature is more collaborative and cosmopolitan, and whose work and social spaces favor open-source commons. For the Internet generation, “quality of life” becomes as important as individual opportunity in fashioning a new dream for the 21st century.

The transition to biosphere consciousness has already begun. All over the world, a younger generation is beginning to realize that one’s daily consumption of energy and other resources ultimately affects the lives of every other human being and every other creature that inhabits the Earth.

The Empathic Civilization is emerging. A younger generation is fast extending its empathic embrace beyond religious affiliations and national identification to include the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the Earth. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?

This blog post has been adapted from Jeremy Rifkin’s new book ‘The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis’ (Tarcher/Penguin; January 2010)

Jeremy Rifkin (born 1945Denver, Colorado), founder and president of the Foundation On Economic Trends, is an American economist, writer, public speaker and activist. Rifkin’s work explores the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society, and the environment.

Jeremy Rifkin was born in Denver, Colorado in 1945, to Vivette Ravel Rifkin and Milton Rifkin, a plastic-bag manufacturer. He grew up on the southwest side of Chicago.

He earned a BS in economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1967. He was a self-described, “party animal”, and also class president. He had an epiphany when one day in 1966 he walked past a group of students picketing the administration building and was amazed to see, as he recalls, that “my frat friends were beating the living daylights out of them. I got very upset.” He organized a freedom-of-speech rally the next day. From then on, Rifkin quickly became an active member of the peace movement.

He went on to obtain his masters degree in international affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1969.

Rifkin pursued anti-war activities at Fletcher, and avoided the Vietnam War by joining VISTA, although he jokingly claimed that he instead “saw action” as an unpaid tutor in the Brooklyn and East Harlem ghetto neighborhoods of New York City.

In 1977, with Ted Howard, he founded the Foundation on Economic Trends. He works out of an office in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.[1]

Since 1994, Rifkin has been a senior lecturer at The Wharton School’s executive education program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he instructs CEOs and senior corporate management from around the world on new trends in science and technology.[2]

He is married to Carol Grunewald.

Scientists Cite Fastest Case of Human Evolution

New York Times

July 1, 2010

Tibetans live at altitudes of 13,000 feet, breathing air that has 40 percent less oxygen than is available at sea level, yet suffer very little mountain sickness. The reason, according to a team of biologists in China, is human evolution, in what may be the most recent and fastest instance detected so far.

Comparing the genomes of Tibetans and Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, the biologists found that at least 30 genes had undergone evolutionary change in the Tibetans as they adapted to life on the high plateau. Tibetans and Han Chinese split apart as recently as 3,000 years ago, say the biologists, a group at the Beijing Genomics Institute led by Xin Yi and Jian Wang. The report appears in Friday’s issue of Science.

If confirmed, this would be the most recent known example of human evolutionary change. Until now, the most recent such change was the spread of lactose tolerance — the ability to digest milk in adulthood — among northern Europeans about 7,500 years ago. But archaeologists say that the Tibetan plateau was inhabited much earlier than 3,000 years ago and that the geneticists’ date is incorrect.

When lowlanders try to live at high altitudes, their blood thickens as the body tries to counteract the low oxygen levels by churning out more red blood cells. This overproduction of red blood cells leads to chronic mountain sickness and to lesser fertility — Han Chinese living in Tibet have three times the infant mortality of Tibetans.

The Beijing team analyzed the 3 percent of the human genome in which known genes lie in 50 Tibetans from two villages at an altitude of 14,000 feet and in 40 Han Chinese from Beijing, which is 160 feet above sea level. Many genes exist in a population in alternative versions. The biologists found about 30 genes in which a version rare among the Han had become common among the Tibetans. The most striking instance was a version of a gene possessed by 9 percent of Han but 87 percent of Tibetans.

Such an enormous difference indicates that the version typical among Tibetans is being strongly favored by natural selection. In other words, its owners are evidently leaving more children than those with different versions of the gene.

The gene in question is known as hypoxia-inducible factor 2-alpha, or HIF2a, and the Tibetans with the favored version have fewer red blood cells and hence less hemoglobin in their blood.

The finding explains why Tibetans do not get mountain sickness but raises the question of how they compensate for the lack of oxygen if not by making extra red blood cells.

Two other studies of Tibetans’ adaptation to high altitude have also identified this gene as a target of selection. A team led by Tatum S. Simonson of the University of Utah and RiLi Ge of Qinghai University in China scanned the genomes of 31 Tibetans and reported in Science in May that HIF2a and other genes involved in red blood cell production bore the stamp of natural selection.

Independently, a group led by Cynthia M. Beall, an anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University, and Yong-Tang Zheng of the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China has detected a genetic change in the same gene in Tibetans and found that it correlated with having less hemoglobin in the blood. Their report was published in the June 22 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Human adaptation to high altitude is a field of obvious interest, but another reason for the appearance of three studies on the same subject in matter of a few weeks may be that the technology to assess which parts of the genome are under selection has only recently become available.

The three new reports agree in finding the Tibetans’ version of the gene has been favored by natural selection. But the Beijing Genome Institute’s calculation that the Tibetan and Han populations split apart only 3,000 years ago is less likely to be accepted. Archaeologists say they believe that the Tibetan plateau has been inhabited for at least 7,000 years and maybe for as long as 21,000 years.

“The separation of Tibetans and Hans at 3,000 years ago is simply not tenable by anything we know from the historical, archaeological or linguistic record,” said Mark Aldenderfer, a Tibetan expert at the University of California, Merced.

Dr. Aldenderfer said that there had probably been many migrations onto the Tibetan plateau, and that there was indirect evidence that pastoralists had entered the plateau from the north-northeast around 6,000 years ago. Earlier genetic studies have found that Tibetans are more similar to northern Han than to those from southern China, and have some admixture of genes from Central Asia, he said.

Geneticists have a more elastic view of dates than do archaeologists, and the estimate of a Han-Tibetan population split at 3,000 years ago could probably have been adjusted to 6,000 if the geneticists had taken any account of any other kind of evidence.

Rasmus Nielsen, a Danish researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, did the statistical calculations for the Beijing study. “We feel fairly confident that something on the order of 3,000 years is correct,” he said. But in a later e-mail message, Dr. Nielsen said, “I cannot with confidence rule out that the divergence time is 6,000 instead of 3,000.”

There is similar flexibility in the estimates of population sizes. The Beijing team calculates that at the time of divergence there were only 288 Han Chinese and 22,642 Tibetans. These estimates have bewildered archaeologists, given that rice cultivation in southern China started 10,000 years ago and that there was an extensive civilization by 3,000 years ago. Dr. Nielsen said that the figure of 288 people was meant simply to indicate a bottleneck in the Han population, meaning a time when it was very small, and that this bottleneck could just as easily have occurred 10,000 years ago.

Genetic differences between Tibetans and Chinese are a potentially delicate issue, given Tibetan aspirations for political autonomy. Dr. Nielsen said he hoped that the Beijing team’s results would carry no political implications, given that it is cultural history and language, not genetics, that constitute a people. There is not much genetic difference between Danes and Swedes, he added, but Denmark and Sweden are separate countries.

Taking Darwin’s Name In Vain — By Jessica Palmer

February 12, 2009


headshotbioE.jpgJessica Palmer has a PhD in Molecular Biology, experience in health policy, and has been blogging about the intersection of art and biology since 2006.


Yesterday I prepared to write my Darwin Day post by attending a panel discussion at theCenter For American Progress here in DC. The discussion was ostensibly about “evolution, transcendence, and the nature of faith,” which led my friend Colin and I to hope for a spirited debate – perhaps even a die-hard creationist who would speak for the three-quarters of frequent churchgoers who don’t accept evolutionary theory! But what we got was a predictable, rather boring discussion – at least until David Sloan Wilson arrived and threw me for a loop.

The first two panelists were Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of CAP and Arthur Caplan of U Penn’s Center of Bioethics. They had an exceedingly genteel discussion with Rick Weiss (formerly a science reporter for the WaPo). Not one of the three expressed the slightest doubt of evolutionary theory, though there was some speculation over how far “upstream of evolution” one might place a Creator. Thistlethwaite, a thoroughly modern clergyperson, argued for the importance of a religious “presence” in people’s lives, but admitted that “sin is the only aspect of Christian doctrine that I can prove.” Rick Weiss jokingly warned against scientists failling into the trap of idolizing Darwin, but I got the impression that everyone agreed Darwin’s theory was above reproach.

On the other hand, despite their support for evolution, not one panelist argued that science should displace religion in the policy-making process. In fact, quite the opposite. As Caplan pointed out, science excels at discovering truths about the natural world, but science does not generate a moral framework or system of values. When it comes to controversial technologies like stem cell therapy or customizing the genome, science can tell us what is possible, but it cannot tell us what we ought to do.

All three panelists shook their heads over the “polarizing political agenda” which argues that science and religion are fundamentally opposed. They clearly preferred that no such conflict be forced. In an op-ed in today’s WaPo, Weiss argues that Darwin himself is the model we should follow. Agonizing over the unlikelihood of God, but uncomfortable with the implications of atheism (both personal and social), Darwin refused to take a position:

The “immense amount of suffering through the world” — not least of which his own, highlighted by the death of his 10-year-old daughter — argued against a benevolent creator, he wrote (with Facebook-like fanaticism, he maintained a correspondence with some 2,000 friends, including 200 clergymen). At the same time, he hedged, it seemed foolish to reject the assertions of so many intellectually “able men” who “fully believed in God.”

In the end, he did what any reasonable person might do: He punted. “The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect,” Darwin concluded. Do heaven and hell exist, and does eternal life follow death? “Every man,” he wrote, “must judge for himself, between conflicting vague probabilities.”

Darwin’s humility on this score was consistent with the contingent nature of truth in science. He didn’t feel he had enough evidence to be certain whether God existed or not. His position was consistent with his life’s work – although evolutionary theory necessarily contradicted traditional church teachings about the age of the world, the Garden of Eden, and so on, it was silent on the existence of God. But Darwin’s position was also a pragmatic strategy for maintaining comity with his religious wife and his large circle of friends and colleagues. Darwin, like the panelists, was a big fan of genteel, decorous discussion.

Some of my fellow biologists vocally disapprove of “punting” on this issue. But the comity Darwin valued is essential to the policy-making process, which is why I dislike any approach that makes religious Americans see science is a threat. Today, only 39% of Americans“believe in” (why do they keep using that misleading wording?) evolution. Telling the other 61% that their opinions are irrelevant, ignorant, and outdated is a sure recipe for conflict – and I say that as someone who has taught developmental biology to extremely religious students in a red state. I agree with Weiss: you have to pick your fights.

However, when it comes to panel discussions, a big fight is always better than a punt. Back at CAP, everything was so agreeable it was boring. The man sitting next to me nodded off briefly. At one point, one of the panelists had to tell the audience that he had just made a joke – and they still didn’t laugh. We desperately needed the intervention of a zealous Darwin-hating kook – or a fanatical Darwinian partisan wearing an ape hat; I didn’t really care which. Fortunately, the event was saved by the belated arrival of the final panelist, David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University.

Wilson is the creator of the Evolution Institute, a nascent think tank which bills itself as “The World’s First Evolutionary Think Tank.” You should go check this out. According to the prospectus,

Pick any topic relevant to human welfare, from prenatal care to obesity, from psychotherapy to cooperation and conflict among nations, and evolutionary theory can provide insights that integrate and go beyond previous perspectives. In retrospect, it will become obvious that evolutionary theory is as important for managing human affairs as physics and chemistry are important for managing the physical world.

Just as evolutionary theory can be applied to virtually every human-related academic subject, it can be applied to virtually every major policy issue. In each case, viewing the subject from an evolutionary perspective can result in policy recommendations that have been missed by other perspectives. As a proof of concept, we have already organized a forum on early childhood education from an evolutionary perspective.

Wow! Really?

Evolutionary theory has powerfully influenced our conceptualization of human behavior in fields like sociobiology, neurobiology, psychology, and economics. On the other hand, while it provides an explanatory framework for how we got to be the way we are, can it really offer a template for a better future? Evolutionary processes sometimes favor developments that most people would agree are bad. For example, evolution has given Homo sapiens the unique ability to radically change our environment – so radically that the globe is now heating up and our fellow species are dying off. I don’t know if evolution has a problem with that outcome, but I sure do.

Weiss asked Wilson outright, “is this a “red in tooth and claw” policy making body?” Wilson responded “Puh-leez!” and proceeded to explain that his think tank would be used for good. Since that’s what mad scientists always say, I wasn’t reassured. But going back to the Evolution Institute prospectus again:

A common theme that will unite most of our specific projects is prosociality as a successful evolutionary strategy. We define prosociality as any belief or practice that is oriented toward the welfare of others or society as a whole.

So that’s good, right? Yay for the common good!

But something bothers me here. Many people would argue that religion – the ostensible block to widespread acceptance of evolution – is itself a prosocial practice that confers an evolutionary advantage. Spirituality promotes individual health. It can unite communities, conferring social structure, ethics, and common purpose. Wilson himself commented that “religion is good at turning human societies into beehives.” When pressed to clarify whether that transformation was a good thing or a bad thing, Wilson said it depended on one’s perspective. And he’s right: bees are clearly a very successful species – or were until the last year or two. But I don’t want to live in a beehive. Do you?

Chimps are our closest relatives, subject to many of the same evolutionary pressures as we are, but they don’t exactly have an egalitarian utopia going on. Maybe you like our cousins the bonobos better – or maybe you have concerns about a matriarchal society built on sexual promiscuity. Yet in each case, the behaviors are adaptive. If you use evolutionary theory to drive policy, how do you guard against discrimination, inequity, and other undesirable outcomes which are evolutionarily favorable? If a division of labor (into hunters and gatherers, say) is evolutionarily favorable, how do we ensure the equity of the sexes? If solidarity among communities and distrust of outsiders is adaptive, how do we avoid discrimination and generate good international relations? How can approaches that were favorable for primitive nomadic societies inform policies designed for the technological anthill we live in today? And if humans evolved to be as we are – demonstrably flawed – how do we use the toolkit of evolution to eliminate those flaws from society?

I don’t want to oversimplify Wilson’s position. He’s a smart guy, and has clearly contemplated many of these issues (I wish his Institute’s prospectus were more detailed). Evolution has indeed improved our understanding of why humans behave as they do; using that understanding to generate better social policy makes a great deal of sense. It also appears to be trendy to identify with Darwin: A related initiative is underway to inform security policy at But I worry that initiatives like this can be misinterpreted. There’s danger in thinking that just because something is or was evolutionarily adaptive, it is good for us. Science can shed great light on why humans might perceive things as good or bad, but it can’t tell us what is good or bad. That’s a question with which we have to constantly struggle, just as Darwin struggled with the existence of God.

One of the difficult realities evolutionary theory has made clear to us is that the human mind is not optimized for truth. It’s optimized for survival. We routinely embrace adaptive fictions. If we want to use our understanding of evolutionary processes to improve society, we must accept that evolution did not bestow upon us a dispassionate, non-spiritual, strictly evidence-based worldview. We’re passionate, spiritual, emotional, irrational, subjective creatures who are poorly equipped to imagine incremental change taking place at an invisibly tiny scale over millions of years – because we evolved this way! Getting the human mind to run the scientific method as its primary OS is a bit like getting a Nintendo to run Linux: we should be impressed that it can be done, not complaining that it’s hard. And when people express deep spiritual reservations or conflicted feelings about the religious implications of evolutionary theory, just as Darwin did, scientists have to understand that it’s not just because they’re ignorant or obstinate. It’s because they’re human.

Happy Darwin Day.

[VIDEO] TVO’S BIG IDEAS:Michael Shermer – Editor of Skeptic Magazine, delivers an entertaining lecture on his book “Why People Believe Weird Things”

Michael Shermer wiki portrait2.jpgMichael Brant Shermer (born September 8, 1954, in Glendale, California) is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic,[1] which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. The Skeptics Society currently has over 55,000 members.[2]

Shermer is also the producer and co-host of the 13-hour Fox Family television series Exploring the Unknown. Since April 2004, he has been a monthly columnist for Scientific American magazine with his Skeptic column. Shermer states he was once a fundamentalist Christian, but converted from a belief in God during his graduate studies, and has described himself as an agnostic,[3] nontheist,[4][5] atheist[6] and advocate for humanist philosophy.[7] He has expressed reservations about such labels, however, as he sees them being used in the service of ‘pigeonholing,’ and prefers to simply be called a skeptic.[6]

Early life, education and career

Shermer was born and raised in Southern California, graduated from Crescenta Valley High School in 1972. He began his undergraduate studies at Pepperdine University, initially majoring in Christian theology, later switching to psychology.[8] He completed his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology/Biology at Pepperdine in 1976.[9]

Shermer’s graduate studies in experimental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, led to many after-class discussions with professors Bayard Brattstrom and Meg White, which is when his “Christian ichthys got away, and with it my religion.”[10] Shermer completed his master’s degree from California State University in Experimental Psychology in 1978.[9]

Shermer began competitive bicycling in 1979, and spent a decade in the sport. During the course of his cycling, Shermer worked with cycling technologists in developing better products for the sport. During his association with Bell Helmets, a bicycle-race sponsor, Shermer advised them on design issues regarding their development of expanded-polystyrene for use in cycling helmets, which would absorb impact far better than the old leather “hairnet” helmets used by bicyclists for decades. Shermer advised them that if their helmets looked too much like motorcycle helmets, in which polystyrene was already being used, and not like the old hairnet helmets, that no serious cyclists or amateur would use them. This suggestion led to their first model, the V1 Pro, which looked like a black leather hairnet, but functioned on the inside like a motorcycle helmet. In 1982, Shermer worked with Dr. Wayman Spence, whose small supply company, Spenco Medical, adapted the gel technology Spence developed for bedridden patients with pressure sores into cycling gloves and saddles to alleviate the carpal tunnel syndrome and saddle sores suffered by cyclists.[11]

During the decade in which he raced long distances, he helped to found the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America (along with Lon Haldeman and John Marino), in which he competed five times (1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1989), was Assistant Race Director six years, and Executive Race Director seven years.[12] Shermer’s embrace of scientific skepticism crystallized during his time as a cyclist, explaining, “I became a skeptic on Saturday, August 6, 1983, on the long climbing road to Loveland Pass, Colorado”[13] after months of training under the guidance of a “nutritionist” with an unaccredited Ph.D. After years of practicing acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, negative ions, rolfing, pyramid power, fundamentalist Christianity, and “a host of weird things” (with the exception of drugs) to improve his life and training, Shermer stopped rationalizing the failure of these practices.[14] Shermer would later produce several documentaries on cycling.[12]

Shermer earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the Claremont Graduate University in the History of Science in 1991 (with his dissertation titled “Heretic-Scientist: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Evolution of Man: A Study on the Nature of Historical Change”).[9] Shermer later based a full-length, 2002 book on his dissertation: In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace….

Before starting the Skeptics Society, Shermer was a Professor of the History of Science at Occidental College, California. Since 2007, Shermer has been an adjunct professor in economics at the Claremont Graduate University.[9][15]

Skeptics Society and Caltech Lecture Series

Main article: The Skeptics Society

In 1992 Shermer started the Skeptics Society, which produces Skeptic magazine and currently has over 55,000 members.[16] In addition, the group organizes the Caltech Lecture Series which offers speakers on a wide range of topics relating to science, psychology, social issues, religion/atheism, skepticism, etc. Past speakers include Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, Donald Johanson, Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Philip Zimbardo, Steven Pinker, Carol Tavris, David Baltimore, Lisa Randall, Daniel Dennett, Tim Flannery, Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, Susan Blackmore, Christof Koch, Alison Gopnik, Ursula Goodenough, Edward Tufte, Bjorn Lomborg, Sam Harris, Jeff Schweitzer and many others. The lectures occur on Sunday afternoons, and are open to the public for a nominal fee.[17]

Published works

Shermer is the author of several books that attempt to explain the ubiquity of irrational or poorly substantiated beliefs, including UFOs, Bigfoot, and paranormal claims. In 1997 he wrote Why People Believe Weird Things, which explores a variety of “weird” ideas and groups (including cults), in the tradition of the skeptical writings of Martin Gardner. A revised and expanded edition was published in 2002. From the Introduction:

So we are left with the legacy of two types of thinking errors: Type 1 Error: believing a falsehood and Type 2 Error: rejecting a truth. … Believers in UFOs, alien abductions, ESP, and psychic phenomena have committed a Type 1 Error in thinking: they are believing a falsehood. … It’s not that these folks are ignorant or uninformed; they are intelligent but misinformed. Their thinking has gone wrong.
— Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, 1997, 2002, Introduction

In How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, Shermer explored the psychology behind the belief in God. In its introduction Shermer wrote “Never in history have so many, and such a high percentage of the population, believed in God. Not only is God not dead as Nietzsche proclaimed, but he has never been more alive.”

In early 2002, Shermer’s Scientific American column introduced Shermer’s Last Law, the notion that “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” Shermer’s Last Law is a spin on Clarke’s Third Law.

In 2002, Shermer and Alex Grobman wrote their book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? which examined and refuted the Holocaust denial movement. This book recounts meeting various denialists and concludes that free speech is the best way to deal with pseudohistory.

Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown was released in 2005 . Then his 2006 book Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, marshals point-by-point arguments supporting evolution, sharply criticizing Intelligent Design. This book also argues that science cannot invalidate religion, and that Christians and conservatives can and should accept evolution.

In June 2006, Shermer, who formerly expressed skepticism regarding the mainstream scientific view on global warming, wrote that, in view of the accumulation of evidence, the position of denying global warming is no longer tenable.[18]

Shermer’s most recent book The Mind of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics was released in 2007. In it Shermer reports on the findings of multiple behavioral and biochemical studies that address evolutionary explanations for modern behavior.

In February 2009, Shermer published The History of Science: A Sweeping Visage of Science and its History, a 25-hour audio lecture.

Media appearances and lectures

Shermer has appeared on several television shows and documentaries. In addition, he appears regularly at conferences and other speaking engagements.

Shermer appeared as a guest on Donahue in 1994 to respond to Bradley Smith’s and David Cole’s Holocaust denial claims, and in 1995 on The Oprah Winfrey Show to challenge Rosemary Altea’s psychic claims. Shermer made a guest appearance in a 2004 episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!, in which he argued that events in the Bible constitute “mythic storytelling,” rather than events described literally. His stance was supported by the show’s hosts, who have expressed their own atheism. The episode in question, The Bible: Fact or Fiction?, sought to debunk the notion that the Bible is an empirically reliable historical record. Opposing Shermer was Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University.[19]

Shermer made several appearances on NBC’s daytime paranormal-themed show The Other Side in 1994 and 1995. After getting to know that show’s producers, he made a formal pitch to their production company for his own skepticism-oriented reality show whose aim would be to present points of view of both believers and skeptics. His proposals were not fruitful, but several years later, one of the executives of that company went to work for the then-newly formed Fox Family Channel, and impressed with Shermer’s show treatment, requested he pitch it to the network. The network picked up the series, Exploring the Unknown, of which Shermer became a producer and cohost. The series, which was budgeted at approximately $200,000USD per episode, was viewed by Shermer as a direct extension of the work done at the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, and would enable Shermer to reach more people. The equivocal title was chosen so as to not tip off guests or viewers as to the skeptical nature of the show.[20] Various segments from Exploring the Unknown can be found on Shermer’s YouTube channel.[21]

Shermer has been a speaker at all three Beyond Belief events from 2006 to 2008. He also spoke at the 2006 TED Conference on “Why people believe strange things.”[22]

Shermer is a frequent guest on Skepticality, the official podcast of Skeptic. [citation needed]

He has appeared on the following programs:

  • The Phil Donahue Show (1994)
  • The Power of Belief (ABC News) (1998)[23]
  • Exploring the Unknown Fox Family TV Series (1999)
  • Politically Incorrect (December 22, 2000) with Bill Maher
  • 20/20 (ABC News) (with John Edward) (December 5, 2003)
  • Dennis Miller (May 19 & May 20, 2004)
  • Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! on “The Bible: Fact or Fiction?” (2004)[19]
  • The Question of God: Sigmund Freud & C.S. Lewis (2004)
  • The Eyes of Nye on “Pseudoscience” (2005)
  • The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (October 4, 2006)
  • Coast to Coast AM (September 1, 2007)
  • Decoding the Past – Doomsday 2012 (2007)
  • Larry King Live (July 13, 2007 and January 24, 2008)
  • Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008)
  • Skepticality (Regular guest)
  • “Mr. Deity and the Skeptic” (September 15, 2009)

Personal life

Shermer lives in Altadena, California, on the edge of a cliff in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains atop which Mount Wilson stands.[24]

Shermer has described himself as a libertarian.[25]

List of books by Shermer

  • Sport Cycling: A Guide to Training, Racing, and Endurance 1985 ISBN 0-8092-5244-9
  • Cycling: Endurance and Speed (Sportsperformance) 1987 ISBN 0-8092-4775-5
  • Teach Your Child Science 1989 ISBN 0-929923-08-1
  • Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. (1997, 2nd Revision edition 2002) ISBN 0-8050-7089-3
  • Teach Your Child Math and Mathemagics 1999 ISBN 0-7373-0134-1
  • The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense 2001 ISBN 0-19-514326-4
  • How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science 2001 ISBN 0-613-35413-3
  • The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (ed.) 2002 ISBN 1-576-07653-9
  • Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? 2002 ISBN 0-520-23469-3
  • In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History 2002 ISBN 0-19-514830-4
  • The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule 2004 ISBN 0-8050-7520-8
  • Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown 2005 ISBN 0-8050-7708-1
  • Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician’s Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks 2006 ISBN 978-0307338402
  • Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design 2006 ISBN 978-0-8050-8121-3
  • The Mind of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics 2007 ISBN 978-0805078329
  • The History of Science: A Sweeping Visage of Science and its History 2009 audio lecture

List of Skeptic columns published in Scientific American

  • 2001-04 Colorful Pebbles and Darwin’s Dictum
  • 2001-05 The Erotic-Fierce People
  • 2001-06 Fox’s Flapdoodle
  • 2001-07 Starbucks in the Forbidden City
  • 2001-08 Deconstructing the Dead
  • 2001-09 Nano Nonsense and Cryonics
  • 2001-10 I Was Wrong
  • 2001-11 Baloney Detection
  • 2001-12 More Baloney Detection
  • 2002-01 Shermer’s Last Law
  • 2002-02 The Gradual Illumination of the Mind
  • 2002-03 Hermits and Cranks
  • 2002-04 Skepticism as a Virtue
  • 2002-05 The Exquisite Balance
  • 2002-06 The Shamans of Scientism
  • 2002-07 Vox Populi
  • 2002-08 Why ET Hasn’t Called
  • 2002-09 Smart People Believe Weird Things
  • 2002-10 The Physicist and the Abalone Diver
  • 2002-11 Mesmerized by Magnetism
  • 2002-12 The Captain Kirk Principle
  • 2003-01 Digits and Fidgets
  • 2003-02 Psychic Drift
  • 2003-03 Demon-Haunted Brain
  • 2003-04 I, Clone
  • 2003-05 Show Me the Body
  • 2003-06 Codified Claptrap
  • 2003-07 Bottled Twaddle
  • 2003-08 The Ignoble Savage
  • 2003-09 The Domesticated Savage
  • 2003-10 Remember the Six Billion
  • 2003-11 Candle in the Dark
  • 2003-12 What’s the Harm
  • 2004-01 Bunkum!
  • 2004-02 A Bounty of Science
  • 2004-03 None So Blind
  • 2004-04 Magic Water and Mencken’s Maxim
  • 2004-05 The Enchanted Glass
  • 2004-06 Death by Theory
  • 2004-07 God’s Number Is Up
  • 2004-08 Miracle on Probability Street
  • 2004-09 Mustangs, Monists and Meaning
  • 2004-10 The Myth Is the Message
  • 2004-11 Flying Carpets and Scientifi c Prayers
  • 2004-12 Common Sense
  • 2005-01 Quantum Quackery
  • 2005-02 Abducted!
  • 2005-03 The Fossil Fallacy
  • 2005-04 The Feynman-Tufte Principle
  • 2005-05 Turn Me On, Dead Man
  • 2005-06 Fahrenheit 2777
  • 2005-07 Hope Springs Eternal
  • 2005-08 Full of Holes
  • 2005-09 Rumsfeld’s Wisdom
  • 2005-10 Unweaving the Heart
  • 2005-11 Rupert’s Resonance
  • 2005-12 Mr. Skeptic Goes to Esalen
  • 2006-01 Murdercide
  • 2006-02 It’s Dogged as Does It
  • 2006-03 Cures and Cons
  • 2006-04 As Luck Would Have It
  • 2006-05 SHAM Scam
  • 2006-06 The Flipping Point
  • 2006-07 The Political Brain
  • 2006-08 Folk Science
  • 2006-09 Fake, Mistake, Replicate
  • 2006-10 Darwin on the Right
  • 2006-11 Wronger Than Wrong
  • 2006-12 Bowling for God
  • 2007-01 Airborne Baloney
  • 2007-02 Eat, Drink and Be Merry
  • 2007-03 (Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
  • 2007-04 Free to Choose
  • 2007-05 Bush’s Mistake and Kennedy’s Error
  • 2007-06 The (Other) Secret
  • 2007-07 The Prospects for Homo economicus
  • 2007-08 Bad Apples and Bad Barrels
  • 2007-09 Rational Atheism
  • 2007-10 The Really Hard Science
  • 2007-11 Weirdonomics and Quirkology
  • 2007-12 An Unauthorized Autobiography of Science
  • 2008-01 Evonomics
  • 2008-02 The Mind of the Market
  • 2008-03 Adam’s Maxim and Spinoza’s Conjecture
  • 2008-04 Wag the Dog
  • 2008-05 A New Phrenology?
  • 2008-06 Expelled Exposed
  • 2008-07 Sacred Science
  • 2008-08 Wheat Grass Juice and Folk Medicine
  • 2008-09 Folk Numeracy and Middle Land
  • 2008-10 A Random Walk Through Middle Land
  • 2008-11 Stage Fright
  • 2008-12 Patternicity
  • 2009-01 Telephone to the Dead
  • 2009-02 Darwin Misunderstood
  • 2009-07 I Want to Believe
  • 2009-08 Shakespeare, Interrupted
  • 2009-09 Skeptic – Paranoia Strikes Deep
  • 2009-10 Captain Hook Meets Adam Smith
  • 2009-11 Will E.T. Look Like Us?
  • 2009-12 Political Science: The Psychological Differences in the U.S.’s Red-Blue Divide
  • 2010-01 Kool-Aid Psychology: Realism versus Optimism

Justice Served, in the Michael Bryant case

Michael Bryant should be judged on his merits 

National Post editorial board

May 25, 2010

The details of Darcy Allen Sheppard’s death have lost none of their shock value in the nine months since his fatal altercation with former Ontario Cabinet minister Michael Bryant on Bloor Street in midtown Toronto. A fairly standard cyclist-vs.-motorist road rage incident quickly degenerated to the point that Mr. Sheppard was reaching into Mr. Bryant’s convertible, then clutching onto it as it accelerated into an oncoming lane, eventually dislodging him on a fire hydrant.

At the time, militant cyclists took to the streets declaring Mr. Sheppard’s death a “hate crime”; less militant cyclists insisted the altercation proved the need for more and better bike lanes, as if urban planning can anticipate and prevent outbursts of primal madness; and class warriors sneeringly predicted the interests of an anonymous, hardworking 33-year-old bicycle courier would be no match for those of the dapper and well-connected Mr. Bryant. We’re sure the latter will feel vindicated by yesterday’s announcement that all charges against Mr. Bryant have been withdrawn.

They were withdrawn for a very good reason, however: There was no reasonable prospect of Mr. Bryant being convicted of criminal negligence causing death or dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death. As became clear during the investigation, Mr. Sheppard instigated the altercation. He was extremely drunk, with a blood alcohol level of 0.183. And had the charges against Mr. Bryant proceeded, the court would have heard that Mr. Sheppard had exhibited “an escalating cycle of aggressiveness toward motorists.”

Yes, Mr. Bryant panicked. We’re sure he’d handle the situation very differently if only he had the chance. But for people to suggest that his reaction is worthy of serious criminal sanctions is to assume that they would behave differently in the same circumstances. Alas, nobody knows just how their fight-or-flight response is wired until it’s put to the test.

This newspaper has little in common with Mr. Bryant’s or his Liberal party’s oppressively nannyish brand of governance. It was particularly ironic to see a former attorney-general at the mercy of a justice system that he and Premier Dalton McGuinty had shamelessly abused for political gain — for example, with their nonsensical pit-bull ban and street-racing law. But no one’s career should be derailed forever by an incident such as this — there but for the grace of God go we all.

Mr. Bryant should be judged in future — politically or otherwise — according to his merits, or lack thereof.

National Post

The Star

DiManno: The 28 seconds that changed Michael Bryant’s life

‘What I will never forget is the unnecessary tragedy of that night,’ said the former attorney general

Wed May 26 2010

Live by rage, die from rage.

Darcy Allan Sheppard was a quixotic hothead consumed by demons from his awful past. But it was the devil inside him on the night of Aug. 31, 2009, that caused his death — and not the man who was once Ontario’s attorney general.

Michael Bryant was merely the hapless vehicle of fate unfolding on a hot summer’s night when all the stars aligned so tragically.

Deranged cyclist meets car. Car bumps infuriated cyclist. The cyclist was the provocateur. The driver was the terrified and disoriented wheelman.

While no conclusive videotape exists of what happened in that confrontation, the déjà vu of it, of Sheppard’s documented fury towards cars and motorists, was captured by an office worker with a camera in a nearby building during a previous and eerily similar altercation: Sheppard, enraged, assaulting a driver only three weeks earlier, spitting on the car, jumping onto the vehicle, and hanging onto the window.

“The photographs clearly show Mr. Sheppard angrily confronting the driver of the vehicle and at one point, hanging onto the car with his hands inside the driver’s window and his feet on the car’s running board,” special prosecutor Richard Peck, a Vancouver lawyer brought in to handle the case, told court Tuesday as he entered the photographs (see below) as exhibits in a packed courtroom at Old City Hall.

Sheppard, a 33-year-old bike courier, may have been a sweet guy, as described by friends, with a humorous disposition. Yet he was also a profoundly violent alcoholic with a criminal record that included two assaults and threatening to kill a cab driver while armed with imitation firearms. Most germane to this case, Sheppard had been involved in six earlier duplicate incidents — four occurring last August — including one in which an elderly woman described him as a “mad man” and another earlier that night.

A night that began with Sheppard in the back of a police cruiser which had responded to a domestic call; a night that ended, an hour later, with Bryant in the back of a police cruiser, about to be charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death.

Both charges were formally withdrawn in court on Tuesday.

Just 28 seconds was the span of time that has forever linked Bryant and Sheppard, the former flung into a vortex of notoriety and the latter sprawled lifeless on the road.

“In 28 seconds, everything can change,” said Bryant.

What had never changed, regrettably, was the pattern of confrontations that Sheppard not only instigated but seemed hell-bent on ratcheting into crises — his “escalating cycle of aggressiveness toward motorists,” said Peck.

While such previous conduct, entered in court, was not meant to “demonize” Sheppard — nor would aggressive conduct on other occasions have justified committing a criminal offence against him — Peck insisted that a propensity for violence, substantiated by credible witnesses, was relevant in determining whether Bryant had been attacked, essentially making the victim the aggressor and Bryant legitimately entitled to self-defence.

This argument found little traction with Sheppard’s friends and defenders, with one declaring afterward that “it’s open season on cyclists.” But the prosecution’s methodical analysis of events found there was no reasonable prospect of conviction on either charge. Bryant might have conducted himself differently, changing the sad outcome, but under the stress and chaos of circumstances that Sheppard had orchestrated that night — his incendiary actions, his assault on the car, his apparent attempt to take control of the Saab convertible’s steering wheel — the alarmed driver’s response was understandable rather than criminal.

“Mr. Bryant was confronted by a man who, unfortunately, was in a rage,” Peck told reporters outside court. “In such circumstances, he was legally justified in trying to get away. The case could not be proved.”

That case was this:

Bryant and his wife, Susan Abramovitch, had been out for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant to celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary. They had not consumed any alcohol, unlike Sheppard who had fallen off the wagon after eight days of sobriety, his blood alcohol level measured after death at 0.183 — more than twice the legal limit for driving a car.

But he didn’t have a car, of course. He had a bicycle and Bryant first spotted him while driving homeward around 9.30 p.m., near the intersection of Bloor and Yonge Sts., noticing a cyclist impeding another motorist by doing figure 8s in front of the car. Other witnesses would later tell police that Sheppard had been throwing garbage onto the road and yelling at drivers.

For reasons of his own, Sheppard clearly did this a lot — menacing motorists and provoking altercations.

Bryant came to a red light between Bay St. and Avenue Rd., where traffic had narrowed to a single lane both ways because of construction. Sheppard, Bryant told investigators, cycled past his car on the driver’s side and then cut in front of the vehicle, stopping directly in front of the Saab.

Bryant hit the brakes and the car stalled. Attempts to get the car started again caused it to lurch forward. There appeared to be no contact between the car and Sheppard’s bike but the cyclist was livid and he was already yelling at Bryant.

He told police afterward he was in a state of panic when, restarting the vehicle, it accelerated unintentionally, shockingly, causing Sheppard to land on the hood. Bryant hit the brakes. Only 2.5 seconds elapsed from the time the vehicle started its forward motion and when it came to a halt, having travelled a total of about 30 feet. At this point, Sheppard was not seriously injured, said Peck.

As Bryant tried to reverse the car and go around the bicycle, Sheppard tossed a backpack that contained a heavy U-shaped lock at either the hood or windshield, and then jumped on the car as Bryant — fearing that he and his wife would be attacked — tried driving away. Sheppard hung on.

Defence lawyer Marie Henein described the scenario in court: “Darcy Allen would not let him go. . . . He ran at the car and jumped onto the driver’s side. Michael believed that he was trying to climb into the car. . . . Michael tried to stop the vehicle and push Darcy Sheppard off. Darcy Sheppard would not let go. Michael wasn’t strong enough to push the 6-foot-1 Darcy Sheppard off. During this attempt, Darcy Sheppard said, ‘You are not going to get away that easy.’

“Darcy Sheppard was deep into the vehicle with his entire upper torso leaning into the vehicle. At some point, Darcy Sheppard was laughing. Michael was desperately trying to control the steering wheel but was having difficulty doing so.”

In Peck’s words, Sheppard was “latched on” to the car.

Finally regaining some control of the steering wheel, Bryant drove into oncoming traffic to get away.

Henein: “Michael was in a complete state of panic and fear. Throughout this brief but frightening attack, Susan thought they were both going to die.”

While some witnesses claimed the car climbed the curb, forensic examination determined this had not happened. But with Sheppard still clinging to the vehicle, the Saab brushed within a foot of a sidewalk fire hydrant. That jostle caused Sheppard to be dislodged from his handhold, striking his head fatally on either the curb or a raised portion of the street.

Bryant drove on around the corner, stopped at the Hotel Hyatt and called 911, waiting for police to arrive.

Peck told court the point from where Sheppard jumped onto the Saab and the spot he fell off was about 100 metres. The fact Bryant drove away — though not far — did not support allegations of errors in judgment to establish criminal liability. The fear of an accused is relevant, Peck noted; Bryant and his wife were in a convertible, vulnerable, and fearful of Sheppard.

While police acted properly in laying the charges, Peck concluded, the couple’s explanation of events and evidence collected afterward demanded that those charges be withdrawn. There was never any special treatment for Bryant because the accused was a former attorney general, he added.

Sheppard — who’d knocked around some 30 foster homes in his childhood — may have had some justification for his chronic distemper. At least, that might help explain it. But his pitiable past was not relevant to what happened last Aug. 31, though the defence — and Bryant — was careful to reference the wretchedness of Sheppard’s difficult life.

“Twenty-eight seconds and you are in the criminal justice system,” said Henein. “Twenty-eight seconds and you’re in the back of a police car. Twenty-eight seconds and you don’t go home to your children.”

Twenty-eight seconds that Bryant wishes he could take back.

“I certainly have gone back and thought about events,” he said later. “Could I have done something differently? I never would have left the house that night. I might have lingered longer on the Danforth. I might have turned right on Bay. . . ”

There is plenty of . . . if only.

The man who once appointed judges said he has been humbled’ by a different and intimate experience of the justice system.

“I now have a unique perspective, from its highest pedestal as attorney general, to its pillory, as a defendant cuffed in the back of a squad car, accused of two very serious offences involving the tragic death of a man.”

The system, he emphasized, had bent over backward to avoid any hint of impropriety. “It can bend in no other direction. It cannot and did not.”

He has no axe to grind against police or the meticulous investigation. “What I will never forget is the unnecessary tragedy of that night. A young man is dead and for his family and friends that remains the searing memory. To them I express my sympathies and sincere condolences. I have grieved that loss and I always will.”

Bryant will return now to his job with a law firm.

“This has turned out to be a tale about addiction, mental health, an independent justice system, a tragic death and a couple out on their wedding anniversary with the top down. It is not a morality play about bikes versus cars, couriers versus drivers, or about class, privilege and politics.

“It’s just about how, in 28 seconds, everything can change. And thereafter time marches on. And so will I.”

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.


Darcy Allan Sheppard taunted other drivers before Michael Bryant: photos


Shannon Kari  May 25, 2010

Darcy Allan Sheppard, the bike courier who died after an encounter with Michael Bryant on Bloor Street, had a documented history of clashes with drivers.

On Aug. 11, 2009 — a few short weeks before his death — Mr. Sheppard had an altercation with the driver of a BMW. Photographs of the incident were taken by an onlooker in a nearby office.

Darcy Allan Sheppard


The man pictured, later identified as Darcy Sheppard, yells at him just because you drive a fancy car you think you can drive along the wrong side of the road.

The driver was in the oncoming lane to avoid parked delivery vehicles on a small street in Toronto’s financial district where couriers gather. At one point, Mr. Sheppard allegedly tried to reach in and grab the keys, hit the driver and grab his earpiece.

Darcy Allan Sheppard


The man shoved Sheppard out of the car. That led to Sheppard allegedly making threats, spitting on the car, banging on it and jumping up on to it, before the motorist was able to drive away.

Darcy Allan Sheppard


The Burgess Shale fossils, a Rocky Mountain treasure trove found in 1909 just west of the B.C.-Alberta border, represent the planet’s single most important snapshot of life as it existed during the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of organisms about 530 million years ago.


African find shades of B.C.’s Burgess Shale: Paleontologists


MAY 18, 2010

The bizarre, long-extinct creatures that make up Canada’s world-famous Burgess Shale fossil site have been given a new lease on life after a half-billion years or so — thanks to a major paleontological discovery in Africa that resets the clock on a key moment in animal evolution.

The Burgess Shale fossils, a Rocky Mountain treasure trove found in 1909 just west of the B.C.-Alberta border, represent the planet’s single most important snapshot of life as it existed during the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of organisms about 530 million years ago.

But because nearly all of the exquisitely preserved animals at the B.C. site have been absent from the fossil record after the 500-million-year mark, the Burgess Shale animals are typically seen as evolution’s losers — a flash-in-the-pan community of trilobites and other ill-adapted, doomed dwellers on the ancient ocean floor.

Now, an international scientific team’s discovery of a much younger fossil bed — which appears to include scores of species also found at the renowned Canadian site — has added at least 20 million years to the evolutionary timeline of the Burgess Shale fauna.

The new fossil bonanza, located near the Atlas Mountains of southeastern Morocco, dates from about 480 million years ago and includes a huge array of Ordovician-era sponges, worms, mollusks and other soft-bodied organisms, many typical of the Burgess Shale site and thought to have died out eons earlier during the Cambrian age.

The discovery, which so far includes more than 1,500 individual specimens, was made by a team of eight researchers from the U.S., Britain, France, Ireland and Morocco. An article detailing the “exceptionally preserved fossils” and highlighting their significance in rewriting the Burgess Shale story appears in the latest issue of Nature.

The African fossils “indicate that Burgess Shale-type taxa continued to play an important role in the diversity and ecological structure of deeper marine communities well after the Middle Cambrian,” say the authors, led by Yale University paleontologist Peter Van Roy.

The team’s discovery “upends a long-held belief” that the Burgess Shale organisms went extinct abruptly, a summary of the study states.

“There was an anomaly in the fossil record,” states Van Roy. “Most of these animals just seemed to disappear.”

Now protected within Yoho National Park as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Burgess Shale fossil bed is considered one of the planet’s most important sites for the study of evolution.

The B.C. fossils were created at a time when the future Canadian land mass was situated near the Earth’s equator. The Burgess Shale creatures were preserved when an entire marine ecosystem was buried in mud that eventually hardened and became exposed hundreds of millions of years later in an outcrop of the Rockies.

U.S. paleontologist Charles Walcott, following reports of fabulous fossil finds by Canadian railway workers laying tracks through the mountains in the late 19th century, is said to have tripped over a block of shale that revealed the area’s remarkable supply of specimens.

Scientists have gathered or recorded tens of thousands of fossils from the site, capturing in remarkable detail the rich diversity of organisms that suddenly filled the world’s oceans a half-billion years ago, before their subsequent eclipse.

Among the imprints of animal remains excavated from the Burgess Shale is one called pikaia, an eel-like creature that has been classified as the earliest known, identifiable ancestor of modern vertebrates, including humans.

Last year, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the site’s 1909 discovery, the limited edition Shale Ale brand of beer was unveiled at a geologists’ conference in Calgary.

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service

The New York Times

Creatures of Cambrian May Have Lived On


May 17, 2010

Ever since their discovery in 1909, the spectacular Burgess Shale outcrops in the Canadian Rockies have presented scientists with a cornucopia of evidence for the “explosion” of complex, multicellular life beginning some 550 million years ago.

The fossils, all new to science, were at first seen as little more than amazing curiosities from a time when life, except for bacteria and algae, was confined to the sea — and what is now Canada was just south of the Equator. In the last half century, however, paleontologists recognized that the Burgess Shale exemplified the radiation of diverse life forms unlike anything in earlier time. Here was evolution in action, organisms over time responding to changing fortunes through natural experimentation in new body forms and different ecological niches.

But the fossil record then goes dark: the Cambrian-period innovations in life appeared to have few clear descendants. Many scientists thought that the likely explanation for this mysterious disappearance was that a major extinction had wiped out much of the distinctive Cambrian life. It seemed that the complex organisms emerging in the Cambrian had come to an abrupt demise, disappearing with few traces in the later fossil record.

Not everyone was convinced, however, and now a trove of 480-million-year-old fossils in Morocco appears to strike a blow to the idea of a major extinction. The international team of scientists who discovered the 1,500 fossils said their find shows that the dark stretch in the fossil record more probably reflects an absence of preservation of fossils over the previous 25 million years.

The team reports in the current issue of the journal Nature that the large number of “exceptionally preserved” Moroccan species exhibits apparently strong links to Cambrian species known from fossil beds in China, Greenland and, most notably, the Burgess Shale. The scientists think this solves the mystery. The Moroccan fossils, they said, establish that Burgess Shale-type species “continued to have an important role in the diversity and ecological structure of deeper marine communities well after the Middle Cambrian.”

The Moroccan fossils include sponges, worms, trilobites and mollusks like clams, snails and relatives of the living nautilus. Another fossil was similar to today’s horseshoe crab, a biological throwback familiar to beachcombers. Now, the scientists said, its antiquity appears to be even greater — some 30 million years earlier than previously thought, possibly in the late Cambrian.

The discovery team’s principal scientist and lead author of the journal article was Peter Van Roy, a Belgian paleontologist who is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. He has worked in Moroccan fossil beds the last 10 years, but it was only last year on a field trip, financed by the National Geographic Society, that he and other scientists uncovered the riches of a site near the Atlas Mountains and the city of Zagora.

Scientists from Britain, France, Ireland, Morocco and the United States participated in the research and were co-authors of the team report. A local fossil collector, Mohammed Ou Said Ben Moulal, directed Dr. Van Roy to the rock outcrops he had scouted.

Soon it became clear, Dr. Van Roy said last week in an e-mail message from Morocco, that the team had “really discovered the whole gamut of these Burgess animals, the majority of which had never been found after the Middle Cambrian.”

A leading member of the team, Derek E. G. Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, cut his academic teeth studying the Burgess Shale. Dr. Briggs figured prominently in “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History,” the 1989 book by Stephen Jay Gould about what the author called the “weird wonders” of the Cambrian period.

In the book, Dr. Gould, who died in 2002, pondered the mystery of the relatively sudden burst of new life designs in the Cambrian, followed by their apparent disappearance. “What turned it off so quickly?” he asked. A few pages before, quoting Charles Darwin, he seemed to despair of finding the fossils to answer the question.

“Darwin wrote,” Dr. Gould recalled, “that our imperfect fossil record is like a book preserving just a few pages, of these pages few lines, of the lines few words, and of those words few letters.”

Darwin’s metaphor pertained to the chances of preservation for bones and teeth. So referring to the predominance of soft-body anatomies of Cambrian life, Dr. Gould asked, “What hope can then be offered to the flesh and blood amidst the slings and arrows of such outrageous fortune?”

Dr. Briggs said in an interview that scientists for some time have suspected that “we were just not finding the right deposits and only seeing a small piece of the picture of what was going on in life back then.”

For that reason, Dr. Briggs said, he expected other scientists would be less surprised by the discovery than reassured. The fossil record for a long stretch after the Middle Cambrian may be spotty and minimal, but has not vanished. The Moroccan fossils not only reveal the continuation of many Cambrian life forms, he said, but show “the high potential that there are other places for finding these Cambrian-like organisms persisting in time.”

As a consequence, the discovery team wrote, the Moroccan sediments offer promising links between the Cambrian Explosion of multicellular life, exemplified in the Burgess Shale, and the early stages of what is known as the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, which is considered “one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of marine life.”

This led to the emergence of fish about 400 million years ago and the migration of four-limbed vertebrates from water onto land 360 million years ago. After the catastrophic mass extinction at the end of the Permian period, about 250 million years ago, the dinosaurs came to the fore in a reptilian world, and after their extinction 65 million years ago, mammals came into their own, hominids evolving probably less than 8 million years ago, modern humans less than 200,000 years ago.

That any of these early Ordovician remains endured verges on the miraculous. Some with shells could be expected to fossilize, but most of these were soft-bodied creatures, prone to rapid decay. The Moroccan fossil beds, Dr. Briggs noted, were once the muddy bottom of an ocean. Storms stirred up the seabed, burying doomed creatures safe from scavengers and in recesses with little or no oxygen to promote decomposition. The sediment chemistry transformed iron and sulfide into pyrite, which coated and preserved the shapes of the animals, including their appendages, and mineralized internal tissue.

“The exquisite preservation of the soft anatomy,” Dr. Van Roy said, “allows more complete, accurate reconstructions of their genetic affinities and ecology than has hitherto been possible.”

Hard at work last week in the Moroccan fossil beds, Dr. Van Roy said, “I obviously intend to exploit this fantastic research opportunity to the fullest.”

Newly discovered fossil revealed as the mother of modern-day molluscs

Steve Connor, Science Editor

27 May 2010

It looks like something out of a Salvador Dali dreamscape but this bizarre sea creature, which lived about 500 million years ago, turns out to have been the mother of all squids – indeed it is the ancestor of octopuses, cuttlefish and all other cephalopod molluscs.

Scientists discovered the creature, named Nectocaris pteryx, after studying samples of fossilised rocks from the famous Burgess Shale of Canada, which provides a remarkably preserved snapshot of the weird and immensely diverse forms of life that evolved during the Cambrian period of geological history.

Nectocaris, which grew to a length of about 5cm, including its two front tentacles, is thought to have been a fast-moving predator which swam using its undulating, wing-like fins.

But crucially it could also shoot a jet of water from a funnel-like nozzle which it could swivel in various directions – a hallmark of modern-day cephalopods.

The researchers believe that this key anatomical detail, discovered by analysing 91 newly discovered fossils of Nectocaris, strongly suggests that it must be the original common ancestor of squids, octopuses and the beautiful chambered-shelled nautilus; the reason is that no other group of animals uses this form of jet propulsion.

“Our discovery allows us to push back the origin of cephalopods by at least 30 million years, to the famous Cambrian explosion about a half-billion years ago,” said Jean-Bernard Caron of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

“Soft tissues of cephalopods tend to decay quickly, so it was difficult to know what primitive cephalopods looked like. The Burgess Shale is well known for its exceptional preservation of soft-bodied animals,” Professor Caron said.

Until 500 million years ago, most life on Earth took the form of simple, single-celled micro-organisms. But during the Cambrian period it exploded into a huge variety of macroscopic, multicellular forms, with a diverse range of body architecture; some of these life forms gave rise to the major groups of animals alive today.

The cephalopods – the word means “head-feet” – are the most intelligent of the invertebrates, animals without backbones.

They have large brains, good vision and can use camouflage to hide from predators or ambush their prey. Despite the fascination they generate, scientists had been unsure of their origins, believing that they had evolved from snail-like molluscs with shells that became filled with gas to allow them to swim freely.

However, the latest study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that all cephalopods can now be traced back to Nectocaris, which shares the ability to hunt its prey using its two stalked eyes and a sophisticated system of jet propulsion, said Martin Smith of the University of Toronto.

“It’s long been thought that cephalopods evolved in the late Cambrian period, when gradual modifications to the shells of creeping, snail-like animals made them able to float. Nectocaris shows us that the first cephalopods actually started swimming without the aid of gas-filled shells,” Dr Smith said.

Modern cephalopods are very complex, with intricate organs and startling intelligence.

“We go from very simple pre-Cambrian life forms to something as complex as a cephalopod in the geological blink of an eye, which illustrates just how quickly evolution can produce complexity,” he said.

“We think that this extremely rare creature is an early ancestor of squids, octopuses and other cephalopods. This is significant because it means that primitive cephalopods were around much earlier than we thought, and offers a reinterpretation of the long-held origins of this important groups of marine animals.

“Our findings mean that cephalopods originated 30 million years earlier than we thought, and much closer to the first appearance of complex animals in the Cambrian explosion,” he added.

Many of us have Neanderthals in our family tree, just as some of us have Hottentots, or Aztecs, or Genghis Khan.

New York Times

May 11, 2010

Kissing Cousins


Olivia JudsonOlivia Judson on the influence of science and biology on modern life.

The past comes to us in tantalizing fragments — a bone here, a footprint there. But of all the fragments yet discovered, perhaps none is so tantalizing as the one published in the journal Science last week: the Neanderthal genome.

Neanderthals have perplexed and intrigued us ever since the first bones were discovered in a cave in what is now Germany, in 1856. Who were they? Why did they vanish?

Neanderthal and human skeletonsJames Estrin/The New York Times A reproduction of a Neanderthal skeleton, left, and the original modern homo sapien skeleton, right.

Over the past century and a half, our picture of them has become less blurry, more distinct. From their bones we know that Neanderthals were bigger and stronger than us “anatomically modern humans,” and they had larger skulls that boasted prominent eyebrow ridges. They appear to be the descendants of a lineage that separated from ours around 400,000 years ago, wandered out of Africa, and lived across Europe and central Asia. The last of the Neanderthals lived on the Iberian peninsula, dying out sometime between 37,000 and 28,000 years ago.

(Anatomically modern humans, in contrast, evolved in Africa, arriving at recognizably modern skeletons between 130,000 and 200,000 years ago. Some time later — 65,000 years ago or so — a group of them left Africa, wending their way through the Middle East and across Eurasia, the Pacific and the Americas. These were the ancestors of today’s non-African populations; and in Europe and central Asia, they coexisted with Neanderthals until the Neanderthals disappeared.)

What else do we know about Neanderthals? They may have decorated their bodies with ornaments; they certainly used tools like axes and spears. They hunted. Indeed, they mostly seem to have eaten meat — they are sometimes described as “top carnivores” — and because of their bigness, probably needed more calories per day than we do.

As our ability to retrieve and sequence ancient DNA has developed and improved, we’ve been able to paint in further details. Some Neanderthals may have had pale skin and red hair. Some of them could taste bitter flavors. They may have had a capacity for speech, though we can’t tell if they had much in the way of language.

And now, with the full genome sequence, we can start to answer many more questions, both about Neanderthals and about ourselves. The idea is that if you line up the sequences of humans, Neanderthals and chimpanzees, you can start to trace which genetic changes occurred when. Unsurprisingly, the data suggest that by far the bulk of our genetic evolution happened in the millions of years before humans and Neanderthals separated; the handful of known differences between us and Neanderthals occur in a motley ragbag of genes. (There’s no obvious stamp of rapid brain evolution, for example.)

The sequence is an amazing accomplishment. Yes, it’s preliminary and contains plenty of errors. But think of this: the DNA was extracted from bones that are tens of thousands of years old. Whereas the DNA in your cells is present in nice long strings, in ancient specimens it’s broken into tiny fragments, if it’s preserved at all. Then there’s the problem of DNA swamping. Which is to say that more than 95 percent of the DNA extracted from the bones belongs to microbes that lived on the bones in the subsequent millenia; this had to be stripped out. Ditto, the DNA from any humans who have handled those bones. As one of my colleagues remarked, the “methods” section of the paper reads like a molecular obstacle course. To have any useable DNA at all, let alone a full genome, is astonishing. Hats off.

And the results stoke the imagination, for they provide more evidence for something that has long been suspected: Neanderthals are not just a quirky sideshow in human evolution, but an intimate part of our own story. Many of us have Neanderthals in our family tree, just as some of us have Hottentots, or Aztecs, or Genghis Khan.

Which isn’t surprising. To be sure, Neanderthals were more genetically distinct from us than any living humans are from one another. But they are still our close relatives — kissing cousins, if you will—and when closely related beings meet, they often take a shine to each other. Coyotes, for example, sometimes cavort with dogs or wolves. Geoffroy’s cat, a south American pussy, sometimes gallivants with another local wildcat, the oncilla, even though their lineages separated a million years ago — much longer ago than ours split from Neanderthals. And ducks of many kinds seem to like mating with one another. Our ancestors, it seems, were no different.

All the same, the idea of Neanderthal ancestry brings a vividness to the distant past. Were the men exotic and sexy? What were half-Neanderthal, half-human children like? Were they extra-beautiful, as people with mixed ancestries often are? Did they have an unusual hungering for red meat? Did we learn Neanderthal customs, or languages?

And it brings a greater poignancy to that other mystery — why did the Neanderthals vanish?

Here, lots of ideas have been put forward — a sure sign that no one knows. Perhaps they died of mad Neanderthal disease, owing to a habit of feasting on one another’s brains. (This has been put forward as a serious hypothesis.) Perhaps they were victims of a changing climate. Perhaps they were “inferior” beings, unable to match our capacity for innovation in the face of adversity. Perhaps their populations became too small, and too sparse, for them to find mates. Or — and this is the most haunting possibility — perhaps they were eventually murdered by their puny cousins. That is, us.


For the Neanderthal genome (and a complex lesson in how to extract Neanderthal DNA), see Green, R. E. et al. 2010. “A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome.” Science 328: 710-722. This paper also provides evidence for human-Neanderthal interbreeding. For a more detailed look at human-Neanderthal differences, see Burbano, H. A. et al. 2010. “Targeted investigation of the Neandertal genome by array-based sequence capture.” Science 328: 723-725.

For a fascinating account of Neanderthal bone structure, see Sawyer, G. J. and Maley, B. 2005. “Neanderthal reconstructed.” Anatomical Record 283B: 23-31.

Working out what happened when in human history is a complex and approximate business. I took the date of 400,000 years since the separation of humans and Neanderthals from the Burbano paper mentioned above. Exactly when Neanderthals disappeared from Europe is disputed. For the 28,000 years ago claim, see Finlayson, C. et al. 2006. “Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe.” Nature 443: 850-853. For the claim that the real date is 37,000 years ago, see Zilhão, J. et al. 2010. “Pego do Diabo (Loures, Portugal): dating the emergence of anatomical modernity in westernmost Eurasia.” PLoS One 5: e8880. The dates I give for anatomically modern humans are approximate, but within the range that is generally accepted; see, for example, Fagundes, N. J. R. et al. 2007. “Statistical evaluation of alternative models of human evolution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 17614-17619; see also the references listed therein.

Whether or not Neanderthals wore jewelry is vigorously contested; for evidence that they did, and a discussion of why some people think they didn’t, see, for example, Zilhão, J. et al. 2010. “Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107: 1023-1028. For evidence that Neanderthals mostly ate meat and count as “top carnivores,” see Richards, M. P. and Trinkaus, E. 2009. “Isotopic evidence for the diets of European Neanderthals and early modern humans.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106: 16034-16039. (These authors also suggest that an inability to switch diets might somehow have led to the Neanderthal extinction.) For Neanderthals and tools, see for example SantaMaría, D. et al. 2010. “The technological and typological behaviour of a Neanderthal group from El Sidrón Cave (Asturias, Spain).” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 29: 119-148.

For red-headed Neanderthals, see Lalueza-Fox, C. et al. 2007. “A melanocortin 1 receptor allele suggests varying pigmentation among Neanderthals.” Science 318: 1453-1455. For their ability to taste bitterness, see Lalueza-Fox, C. et al. 2009. “Bitter taste perception in Neanderthals through the analysis of the TAS2R38 gene.” Biology Letters 5: 809-811. For a possible linguistic capacity, see Krause, J. et al. 2007. “The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neanderthals.” Current Biology 17: 1908-1912.

For earlier suspicions that Neanderthals and humans interbred see, for example, Trinkaus, E. 2007. “European early modern humans and the fate of the Neandertals.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 7367-7372; and Herrera, K. J. et al. 2009. “To what extent did Neanderthals and modern humans interact?” Biological Reviews 84: 245-257.

For coyotes cavorting with wolves, see Kays, R., Curtis, A. and Kirchman, J. J. 2010. “Rapid adaptive evolution of northeastern coyotes via hybridization with wolves.” Biological Letters 6: 89-93. For coyotes and dogs, see Adams, J. R., Leonard, J. A., and Waits, L. P. 2003. “Widespread occurrence of a domestic dog mitochondrial DNA haplotype in southeastern US coyotes.” Molecular Ecology 12: 541-546. For hanky-panky in south American cats, see Trigo, T. C. et al. 2008. “Inter-species hybrization among Neotropical cats of the genus Leopardus, and evidence for an introgressive hybrid zone between L. geoffroyi and L. tigrinus in southern Brazil.” Molecular Ecology 17: 4317-4333. A an overview of similar goings-on in ducks can be found in Muñoz-Fuentes, V. et al. 2007. “Hybridization between white-headed ducks and introduced ruddy ducks in Spain.” Molecular Ecology 16: 629-638.

The suggestion that mad Neanderthal disease caused their demise has been put forward several times; see, for example, Cooper, J. H. 2000. “Did cannibalism and spongiform encephalopathy contribute to the demise of the Neanderthals?” Mankind Quarterly 41: 175-180 and Underdown, S. 2008. “A potential role for transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction.” Medical Hypotheses 71: 4-7. The notion that Neanderthals were culturally inferior to us — and that this caused their extinction — is pervasive; see, for example, Klein, R. G. 2003. “Whither the Neanderthals?” Science 299: 1525-1527. For the possibility that small, sparse populations was the eventual problem, see Hublin, J.-J. and Roebroeks, W. 2009. “Ebb and flow or regional extinctions? On the character of Neandertal occupation of northern environments.” Comptes Rendus Palevol 8: 503-509. (This paper is also my source for the claim that Neanderthals needed to eat more calories than we do.) For other hypotheses, see Herrera, K. J. et al. 2009. “To what extent did Neanderthals and modern humans interact?” Biological Reviews 84: 245-257.

Many thanks to Thiago Carvalho, Mike Eisen, Gideon Lichfield and Jonathan Swire for insights, comments and suggestions.

Signs of Neanderthals Mating With Humans

New York Times

May 6, 2010

Neanderthals mated with some modern humans after all and left their imprint in the human genome, a team of biologists has reported in the first detailed analysis of the Neanderthal genetic sequence.

The biologists, led by Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have been slowly reconstructing the genome of Neanderthals, the stocky hunters that dominated Europe until 30,000 years ago, by extracting the fragments of DNA that still exist in their fossil bones. Just last year, when the biologists first announced that they had decoded the Neanderthal genome, they reported no significant evidence of interbreeding.

Scientists say they have recovered 60 percent of the genome so far and hope to complete it. By comparing that genome with those of various present day humans, the team concluded that about 1 percent to 4 percent of the genome of non-Africans today is derived from Neanderthals. But the Neanderthal DNA does not seem to have played a great role in human evolution, they said.

Experts believe that the Neanderthal genome sequence will be of extraordinary importance in understanding human evolutionary history since the two species split some 600,000 years ago.

So far, the team has identified only about 100 genes — surprisingly few — that have contributed to the evolution of modern humans since the split. The nature of the genes in humans that differ from those of Neanderthals is of particular interest because they bear on what it means to be human, or at least not Neanderthal. Some of the genes seem to be involved in cognitive function and others in bone structure.

“Seven years ago, I really thought that it would remain impossible in my lifetime to sequence the whole Neanderthal genome,” Dr. Paabo said at a news conference. But the Leipzig team’s second conclusion, that there was probably interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans before Europeans and Asians split, is being greeted with reserve by some archaeologists.

A degree of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals in Europe would not be greatly surprising given that the two species overlapped there for some 15,000 years, from 44,000 years ago when modern humans first entered Europe to 30,000 years ago when the last Neanderthals fell extinct. Archaeologists have been debating for years whether the fossil record shows evidence of individuals with mixed features.

But the new analysis, which is based solely on genetics and elaborate statistical calculations, is more difficult to match with the archaeological record. The Leipzig scientists assert that the interbreeding they detect did not occur in Europe but in the Middle East and at a much earlier period, some 100,000 to 60,000 years ago, before the modern human populations of Europe and East Asia had split. There is much less archaeological evidence for an overlap between modern humans and Neanderthals at this time and place.

Dr. Paabo has pioneered the extraction and analysis of ancient DNA from fossil bones, overcoming a host of daunting obstacles over the last 13 years in his sustained pursuit of the Neanderthal genome. Perhaps the most serious is that most Neanderthal bones are extensively contaminated with modern human DNA, which is highly similar to Neanderthal DNA. The DNA he has analyzed comes from three small bones from the Vindija cave in Croatia. They are fragments of long bones deliberately crushed, perhaps as part of a cannibal feast, and seem too uninteresting to have invited much handling.

“This is a fabulous achievement,” said Ian Tattersall, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, referring to the draft Neanderthal genome that Dr. Paabo’s team describes in Thursday’s issue of Science.

But he and other archaeologists questioned some of the interpretations put forward by Dr. Paabo and his chief colleagues, Richard E. Green of the Leipzig institute, and David Reich of Harvard Medical School. Geneticists have been making increasingly valuable contributions to human prehistory, but their work depends heavily on complex mathematical statistics that make their arguments hard to follow. And the statistical insights, however informative, do not have the solidity of an archaeological fact.

“This is probably not the authors’ last word, and they are obviously groping to explain what they have found,” Dr. Tattersall said.

Richard Klein, a paleontologist at Stanford, said the authors’ theory of an early interbreeding episode did not seem to have taken full account of the archaeological background. “They are basically saying, ‘Here are our data, you have to accept it.’ But the little part I can judge seems to me to be problematic, so I have to worry about the rest,” he said.

In an earlier report on the Neanderthal genome, the reported DNA sequences were found by other geneticists to be extensively contaminated with human DNA. Dr. Paabo’s group has taken extra precautions but it remains to be seen how successful they have been, Dr. Klein said, especially as another group at the Leipzig institute, presumably using the same methods, has obtained results that Dr. Paabo said he could not confirm.

Dr. Paabo said that episode of human-Neanderthal breeding implied by Dr. Reich’s statistics most plausibly occurred “in the Middle East where the first modern humans appear before 100,000 years ago and there were Neanderthals until 60,000 years ago.” According to Dr. Klein, people in Africa expanded their range and reached just Israel during a warm period some 120,000 years ago. They retreated during a cold period some 80,000 years ago and were replaced by Neanderthals. It is not clear whether or not they overlapped with Neanderthals, Dr. Klein said.

These humans, in any case, were not fully modern and they did not expand from Africa, an episode that occurred some 30,000 years later. If there was any interbreeding, the flow of genes should have been both ways, Dr. Klein said, but Dr. Paabo’s group sees evidence for gene flow only from Neanderthals to modern humans.

The Leipzig group’s interbreeding theory would undercut the present belief that all human populations today draw from the same gene pool that existed a mere 50,000 years ago. “What we falsify here is the strong Out-of-Africa hypothesis that everyone comes from the same population,” Dr. Paabo said.

In his and Dr. Reich’s view, Neanderthals interbred only with non-Africans, the people who left Africa, which would mean that non-Africans drew from a second gene pool not available to Africans. Dr. Reich said that the known percentage difference in DNA units between African and non-African genomes was not changed by his proposal that some of the non-African DNA is from Neanderthals.

The Neanderthal DNA that Svante Pääbo analyzed came from these three bones.

[VIDEO] BILL HICKS: The Tupac Shakur of Comedy

William Melvin “Bill” Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was an American stand-up comedian and satirist. His humor challenged mainstream beliefs, aiming to “enlighten people to think for themselves.”[1] Hicks used a ribald approach to express his material, describing himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes.”[1] His jokes included general discussions about society, religion, politics, philosophy and personal issues. Hicks’ material was often deliberately controversial and steeped in dark comedy. In both his stand-up performances, and during interviews, he often criticized consumerism, superficiality, mediocrity and banality within the media and popular culture, describing them as oppressive tools of the ruling class, meant to “keep people stupid and apathetic.”[2]

Hicks died of pancreatic cancer, which had spread to his liver, in 1994 at the age of 32. In the years after his death, his work and legacy achieved significant admiration and acclaim, of numerous comedians, writers, actors and musicians alike. He was listed as the 19th greatest stand-up comedian of all time by Comedy Central in 2004, and 6th greatest in 2007 and 4th greatest in 2010 by Channel 4.

Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Bill Hicks was the son of Jim and Mary (Reese) Hicks, and had two elder siblings, Steve and Lynn. The family lived in Florida, Alabama and New Jersey, before settling in Houston, Texas, when Hicks was seven. He was raised in the Southern Baptist faith, where he first began performing as a comedian to other children at Sunday School.[3]

He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and writing routines with his friend Dwight Slade. Worried about his behavior, his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17 but, according to Hicks, after one session the psychoanalyst informed him that “…it’s them, not you.”[3]

In 1978, Hicks, along with friends Slade, Ben Dunn, John S. and Kevin Booth, began performing at the Comedy Workshop in Houston. At first, Hicks was unable to drive to venues independently and was so young that he needed a special work permit to perform. By the autumn of 1978 he had worked his way up to performing once every Tuesday night, while still attending Stratford High School. He was well-received and started developing his improvisational skills, although his act at the time was limited.

In 1986, Hicks found himself broke, but his career received another upturn as he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special, in 1987. The same year, he moved to New York City, and for the next five years he did about 300 performances a year. On the album Relentless, he jokes that he quit using drugs because “once you’ve been taken aboard a UFO, it’s kind of hard to top that”, although in his performances, he continued to extol the virtues of LSD, marijuana, and psychedelic mushrooms.[4] He fell back to chain-smoking,[5] a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on.

In 1988 Hicks signed on with his first professional business manager, Jack Mondrus. Throughout 1989, Mondrus worked to convince many clubs to book Hicks, promising that the wild drug- and alcohol-induced behavior was behind him. Among the club managers hiring the newly sober Hicks was Colleen McGarr, who would become his girlfriend and fiancée in later years.

In 1989 he released his first video, Sane Man.[6] It was reissued in 2006.

In 1990, Hicks released his first album, Dangerous, performed on the HBO special One Night Stand, and performed at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival.[7] He was also part of a group of American stand-up comedians performing in London’s West End in November (or December[8]). Hicks was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland and continued touring there throughout 1991. That year, he returned to the Just for Laughs festival and recorded his second album, Relentless.

Hicks made a brief detour into musical recording with the Marble Head Johnson album in 1992. In November (or December[8]), he toured the UK, where he recorded the Revelations video for Channel 4. He closed the show with “It’s Just a Ride”, one of his most famous and life-affirming philosophies. Also in that tour he recorded the stand-up performance released in its entirety on a double CD titled Salvation. Hicks was voted “Hot Standup Comic” by Rolling Stone magazine. He moved to Los Angeles in early 1993.

Censorship and aftermath

Hicks was constantly facing problems with censorship. In 1984, Hicks was invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman for the first time. He had a joke that he used frequently in comedy clubs about how he accidentally caused a fellow class-mate to become wheelchair bound. NBC had a policy that no handicapped jokes could be aired on the show, making his stand-up routine difficult to perform without mentioning words such as “wheelchair”. Hicks was disappointed that the TV audience didn’t get to experience the uncensored Bill Hicks that people saw in clubs.[9]

On October 1, 1993, about five months before his death, Hicks was scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman, his twelfth appearance on a Letterman late night show but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast — then the only occasion where a comedian’s entire routine was cut after taping. Hicks’ stand-up routine was removed from the show allegedly because Letterman and his producer were nervous about Hicks’ religious jokes. Hicks said he believed it was due to a pro-life commercial aired during a commercial break.[10] Both the show’s producers and CBS denied responsibility. Hicks expressed his feelings of betrayal in a letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker.[11][12] Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, Hicks did not appear on the show again. The full account of this incident was featured in a New Yorker profile by Lahr[11], which was later published as a chapter in Lahr’s book, Light Fantastic.[13]

Hicks’ mother, Mary, appeared on the January 30, 2009, episode of Late Show. Letterman played Hicks’ routine in its entirety. Letterman took full responsibility for the original censorship and apologized to Mrs. Hicks. Letterman also declared he did not know what he was thinking when he pulled the routine from the original show in 1993. Letterman said, “It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill because there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.”

Cancer diagnosis and death

In April 1993, while touring in Australia, Hicks started complaining of pains in his side, and on June 16 of that year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver.[16] He started receiving weekly chemotherapy, while still touring and also recording his album, Arizona Bay, with Kevin Booth. He was also working with comedian Fallon Woodland on a pilot episode of a new talk show, titled Counts of the Netherworld for Channel 4 at the time of his death. The budget and concept had been approved, and a pilot was filmed. The Counts of the Netherworld pilot was shown at the various Tenth Anniversary Tribute Night events around the world on February 26, 2004.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Hicks would often joke openly at performances exclaiming it would be his last. Hicks performed the actual final show of his career at Caroline’s in New York on January 6, 1994. He moved back to his parents’ house in Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye, before he stopped speaking on February 14[citation needed], and re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.[17] He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He died of cancer in the presence of his parents at 11:20 p.m. on February 26, 1994. He was 32 years old.[18] Hicks was buried in the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi.

On February 7, 1994, after his diagnosis with cancer, Hicks authored a short statement on his perspective, wishes and thanks of his of life, to be released after his death as his “last word”,[16] ending with the words:

“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”

Comic style

Hicks’s style was a play on his audience’s emotions. He expressed anger, disgust and apathy while addressing the audience in a casual and personal manner, which he likened to merely conversing with his friends, often making eye contact with individual audience members in smaller venues.

Hicks’s material was less focused on the everyday banalities of life and placed greater emphasis on philosophical themes of existence. He would invite his audiences to challenge authority and the existential nature of “accepted truth.” One such message, which he often used in his shows, was delivered in the style of a news report:

Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration — that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves… Here’s Tom with the weather! [19]

Another of Hicks’s most famous quotes was delivered during a gig in Chicago in 1989 (later released as the bootleg I’m Sorry, Folks). After a heckler repeatedly shouted “Free Bird”, Hicks screamed that “Hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever!” Hicks followed this remark with a misanthropic tirade calling for unbiased genocide against the whole of humanity.[20]

Much of Hicks’s routine involved direct attacks on mainstream society, religion, politics, and consumerism. Asked in a BBC interview why he cannot do a routine that appeals “to everyone”, he said that such an act was impossible. He responded by repeating a comment an audience member once made to him, “We don’t come to comedy to think!”, to which he replied, “Gee! Where do you go to think? I’ll meet you there!” In the same interview, he also said: “My way is half-way between: this is a night-club, and these are adults.” [21]

Hicks often discussed conspiracy theories in his performances, most notably the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He mocked the Warren Report and the official version of Lee Harvey Oswald as a “lone nut assassin.” He also questioned the guilt of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian compound during the Waco Siege.

Hicks would end some of his shows — and especially those being recorded in front of larger audiences as albums — with a mock “assassination” of himself on stage, making gunshot sound effects into the microphone and falling to the ground.


Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor were released posthumously in 1997 on the Voices imprint of the Rykodisc label. Dangerous and Relentless were also re-released by Rykodisc on the same date.

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian’s Comedian, fellow comedians and comedy insiders voted Hicks #13 on their list of “The Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever”. Likewise, in “Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time” (2004), Hicks was ranked at #19. In March 2007, Channel 4 ran a poll, “The Top 100 Stand-Up Comedians of All Time,” in which Hicks was voted #6. Channel 4 renewed this list in April 2010, which saw Hicks move up 2 places to #4.[36]

Devotees of Hicks have incorporated his words, image, and attitude into their own creations. Because of audio sampling, fragments of Hicks’ rants, diatribes, social criticisms, and philosophies have found their way into many musical works, such as the live version of Super Furry Animals’ “Man Don’t Give A Fuck”. His influence on Tool is well documented; he “appears” on the Fila Brazillia album Maim That Tune (1996) and on SPA’s self titled album SPA (1997), which are both dedicated to Hicks; the British band Radiohead’s second album The Bends (1995) is also dedicated to his memory. Singer/songwriter Tom Waits listed Rant in E Minor as one of his 20 most cherished albums of all time.[37] The UK band Shack released an album in August 2003 quoting a Bill Hicks routine in the title: Here’s Tom With the Weather. The album also included other Bill Hicks quotes in the liner notes. English breakbeat artist Adam Freeland sampled Revelations for his track “We Want Your Soul.” Welsh punk rock band Mclusky reference a Hicks routine in the lyrics to their song “To Hell With Good Intentions”. Punk cabaret musician Amanda Palmer says, “I have my new Bill Hicks CD” in the song “Another Year” on her 2008 album Who Killed Amanda Palmer. The Swedish indie pop singer/songwriter Jens Lekman has written a song called “People who Hate People Come Together” after the same Hicks quote. The last track of The Kleptones album Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots, Last Words (A Tribute), includes his “It’s just a ride” in its entirety.[citation needed]

Hamell on Trial’s 1999 album Choochtown includes the song “Bill Hicks,” featuring the lyric “I wish Billl Hicks was alive/I wish Bill Hicks had survived,” as well at the instrumental tribute “Bill Hicks (Ascension).”

Rappers Adil Omar and Vinnie Paz have also cited Hicks as an influence to their work; contemporary comedians David Cross and Russell Brand have stated that they were inspired by Hicks.[38][39] Irish Independent columnist Ian O’Doherty is also a great admirer of Hicks.

On their 2009 album There Is No Enemy, Built To Spill released the song “Planting Seeds” with the lyrics “I’ve heard that they’ll sell anything and I think they might…I think Bill Hicks was right…about what they should do.” referring to his stand up routine which asks marketers to kill themselves. The song title refers to a bit in the same routine when Bill explains, “Just planting seeds here, folks.”.

The British film Human Traffic referred to him as the “late prophet Bill Hicks,” and portrays the main character, Jip, watching Hicks’ stand-up before going out to “remind me not to take life too seriously”. Hicks even appears in the comic book Preacher, in which he is an important influence on the protagonist, Rev. Jesse Custer. His opening voice-over to the 1991 Revelations live show is also quoted in Preacher‘s last issue.[citation needed]

The British actor Chas Early portrayed Hicks in the one-man stage show Bill Hicks: Slight Return, which premiered in 2005.

On February 25, 2004, British MP Stephen Pound tabled an early day motion titled “Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks” (EDM 678 of the 2003-04 session), the text of which was as follows:

That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 32; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worth [sic] of inclusion with Lenny Bruce and George Carlin in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.[40]

Film and documentary

A film about Hicks’ life and career, rumored to be directed by Ron Howard, is said to be in pre-production. Russell Crowe has been mentioned as one of the producers and may portray Hicks as well.[41]

A documentary entitled American: The Bill Hicks Story, based on interviews with his family and friends, premiered on March 12, 2010, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.[42] The film has gone on to screen at multiple festivals including SxSW, London Film Festival and Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Scientists investigate if atheists’ brains are missing a ‘God Spot’

Globe and Mail

Erin Anderssen

Globe and Mail, Friday, Apr. 02, 2010

This week, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, two of North America’s most prominent atheists, sat around on Mr. Maher’s television show “gloating,” as they put it themselves, about the latest revelations of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

While one can imagine better ways to talk about such life-destroying tragedies, it seems nearly anything can be fodder for the ongoing, vitriolic war between believers and non-believers.

For the most part, the battleground has been book sales on, but the conflict does reach into other spheres: This week, a U.S. appeals court rejected a lawsuit claiming that the use of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance discriminated against atheists, while a vandal in Detroit this week destroyed bus ads that said, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”

And now, the brain scientists who have famously sought the wellspring of faith in the grey matter of nuns and monks are turning their attention to the other side. In the past two years, an international scientific network has been formed to collect research on atheism. Pitzer College in Los Angeles is expected to announce the first secular studies department in the world this spring. Last December, social scientists gathered at the University of Oxford for a conference on atheism – a rare academic event, according to one of the organizers, Stephen Bullivant.

They were looking at the natural next challenge in neurotheology: If religion or spiritual belief is the human default position, how does atheism happen?

No clear conclusions were reached, says Dr. Bullivant, a research fellow in theology at Oxford. But here are some of the questions researchers are asking.

Do atheists’ brains work differently?

The widespread idea that human brains have a special area that governs spiritual belief – a “God Spot” – has been disputed by scientists such as Jordan Grafman, a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md.

Doing brain imagining on believers while they prayed and meditated, he found that the areas of the brain involved were the expected areas of memory and feeling; no special section was suddenly activated.

“Maybe we are special in the eyes of God, but God didn’t place anything special in our brains – at least as far as we can see,” Dr. Grafman says.

Other studies have shown that beliefs about God, for or against, originate in the same part of the brain. Only the interpretation of information is different.

In Rorschach ink-blot studies, for instance, believers tended to see images that weren’t there and non-believers tended to miss images that were present.

At the same time, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College who studies atheists, points to people in his research who report growing up in heavily Christian background, but always feeling that they were atheists – with the same conflicted emotions, he suggests, as gay people have growing up.

He also points out gender differences in religious belief, which may suggest something biological is at play. “Men always tend to be more secular than women. And that’s in every study, in every country, in every race, for every known measure of religiosity,” he says.

Are atheists smarter than people who believe in God?

Historically, atheism has been a position open mainly to educated, upper-class people – a segment of society with the resources and leisure time to ponder life’s larger questions, as well as the freedom to break with social norms.

A study released in February using survey data and IQ tests from British teenagers found that the teens with higher intelligence scores were more likely to be atheists.

Todd Shackelford, an evolutionary psychologist at Florida Atlantic University, has reviewed 40 studies on religious and intelligence going back 100 years. He says all but two of them suggested that more educated people tended to be less religious.

“There’s no doubt there are people who are extremely intelligent who are also very religious,” Dr. Shackelford says. “The question then becomes what is setting them apart.”

On the other hand, the 2005 World Values Survey, while generally finding the same trend, also suggested that the number of non-believers was slightly lower among university-educated people. (People with more education were also more likely to have other supernatural beliefs – in telepathy, for instance – than people who had graduated only from high school.)

In another, smaller survey conducted by the London-based Theos Think Tank, while lifelong atheists or non-religious people tended to have more education, people who had changed their minds and adopted religious belief at some point were more heavily represented among the highest education and class levels.

Is religion innate?

“There is a lot of evidence that religious beliefs flow very naturally from the way the mind is designed,” Dr. Shackelford says. It has long been believed, he says, that atheism is a harder position to maintain because it goes against the natural instinct to want to attach some kind of meaning to phenomena we can’t explain. “Perhaps religion is natural, but not inevitable.”

Jesse Bering, the director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University in Belfast, says that even people who say they don’t believe in God often unconsciously attach a supernatural meaning to events – for instance, that bad things happen to us in order to teach life lessons.

Evolutionary psychologists also suggest that religion developed in order to establish moral codes and build community among human being.

But studies have shown that people tend to give universal answers to moral questions regardless of their beliefs, though they are likely to articulate them differently.

To study the impact of atheism on community standards, Dr. Zuckerman spent 19 months in Denmark and Sweden, both affluent places where non-believers count for 80 per cent of the population. His research found that, rather than being hostile to religion, non-believers in those countries tended to express indifference or to call themselves “cultural Christians” because they still participated in many rites (baptism, marriages, funerals and holidays) linked to the national church.

In any event, Dr. Zuckerman says, the research on atheism is just getting started. “We’ll never fully understand religion until we can understand secularity,” he observes. “There are intellectual questions needing to be answered, because they have real-life, political consequences.”

Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

New Hominid Species Discovered in South Africa

The New York Times

April 8, 2010

Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist, with son Matthew and dog Tau, at the at the Malapa site where they discovered the new hominid species.

CRADLE OF HUMANKIND, South Africa — Nine-year-old Matthew Berger dashed after his dog Tau into the high grass here one sunny morning, tripped over a log and stumbled onto a major archeological discovery. Scientists announced Thursday that he had found the bones of a new hominid species that lived almost two million years ago during the fateful, still mysterious period spanning the emergence of the human family.

“Dad, I found a fossil!” Matthew said he cried out to his father, Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist, who had been searching for hominid bones just a hill-and-a-half away for almost two decades. Fossil hunters have profitably scoured these rolling grasslands north of Johannesburg since the 1930s.

Matthew held in his hands the ancient remains of a 4-foot-2 boy who had been just a few years older than Matthew himself. Dr. Berger, with the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and his fellow researchers have since found much more of the boy’s skeleton, including his extraordinarily well-preserved skull, and three other individuals. South Africa’s children will compete to name the boy.

The cranium of Australopithecus sediba from the Malapa site in South Africa.

In a report being published Friday in the journal Science, Dr. Berger, 44, and a team of scientists said the fossils from the boy and a woman were a surprising and distinctive mixture of primitive and advanced anatomy and thus qualified as a new species of hominid, the ancestors and other close relatives of humans. It has been named Australopithecus sediba.

The species sediba, which means fountain or wellspring in the seSotho language, strode upright on long legs, with human-shaped hips and pelvis, but still climbed through trees on apelike arms. It had the small teeth and more modern face of Homo, the genus that includes modern humans, but the relatively primitive feet and “tiny brain” of Australopithecus, Dr. Berger said.

Geologists estimated that the individuals lived 1.78 to 1.95 million years ago, probably closer to the older date, a period when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries.

Dr. Berger’s team said that the new species probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. At a teleconference on Wednesday, he described the species as a possible ancestor of Homo erectus, an immediate predecessor to Homo sapiens, or a close “side branch” that did not lead to modern humans.

Scientists not involved in the research debate whether the bones belong to the Homo or Australopithecus genus, but most agreed that the discovery of the skeletons at the Malapa site here in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site where dolomitic limestone caves contain fossils of ancient animals and hominids, was a major advance in the early fossil history of hominids.

“They are a fascinating mosaic of features,” said Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution. “It reminds us of the combining and recombining of characteristics, the tinkering and experimentation, that go on in evolution.”

Dr. Berger said the path to discovery began over the Christmas holidays in 2007 when he began using Google Earth to map caves in the Cradle of Humankind. On a recent visit to his office, he rotated Google Earth images of the dun landscape on his desktop, showing how he spotted the shadows and distortions of the earth that gave clues to the location of caves, often topped with wild olive and white stinkwood trees.

On Aug. 15, 2008, when Matthew called his father to look at the bones he had found, Dr. Berger began cursing wildly as he neared his son. The boy mistook his father’s profanity for anger. But from 15 feet, Dr. Berger, who had done his Ph.D. on hominid shoulder bones, among them the clavicle, was astounded to see that his son had in his hands a clavicle with the unmistakable shape of a hominid.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Dr. Berger giddily recalled. “I took the rock, and I turned it” and “sticking out of the back of the rock was a mandible with a tooth, a canine, sticking out. And I almost died,” he said, adding “What are the odds?”

In March 2009, he found the remarkably intact cranium of the sediba boy whose clavicle Matthew had picked up. Donald Johanson, who found the famed 3.2 million year old Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia in 1973, described the skull as “a fabulous specimen.”

In his lab last week, Dr. Berger took a fire-resistant case from a metal safe and reverently lifted the skull from its foam bed, revealing its startlingly delicate face.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.

The scientists also found a profusion of animal fossils at the site — saber-toothed cats, mongoose, wild dogs, antelopes, hyena and mice, among others. Dr. Berger and Paul Dirks, a geologist at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, hypothesized that the animals may have been lured to the edge of a 100-150 foot funnel-shaped shaft into a deep cave, perhaps by the scent of water during a drought, then plunged to the bottom of a death trap.

There is evidence that maggots and carrion beetles, but not carnivores, fed upon the rotting carcasses, leading the scientists to conclude that the carnivores, too, must have died from the fall. The first downpours of the rainy season may have swept the bodies into a pool of water rich with lime and sand — the ingredients of cement — which essentially froze them in place. Dr. Berger called the sediba fossils “a time machine” into evolutionary processes.

Researchers now think the split between apes and the hominid lineage occurred around seven million years ago in Africa. The sparse fossil record shows early hominid species already walking upright, but still relatively apelike. Small australopithecines, with bodies and brains not much bigger than those of modern chimpanzees, were widespread from 3.8 million to 3 million years ago, most famously Australopithecus afarensis like Lucy.

Just when changes leading to Homo were happening remains unclear in the fossil record. Hominids started shaping stone tools about 2.6 million years ago. Hominids identified as Homo appeared more than 2 million years ago, their direct ancestry anything but clear. The species Au. sediba thus shared a time with Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, supported the discovery team’s interpretation of the fossils as a previously unclassified species of advanced Australopithecus “with suggestions of Homo.”

But it is often a toss-up whether a fossil discovery will bring order or confusion to the family tree. William H. Kimbel, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, said the fossil remains were instead a species of early Homo with some cranial and skeletal material “seen otherwise only in Homo.”

As the taxonomic debate continues, so, too, does fossil hunting at the Malapa site. So far, the scientists exploring it have not even started digging, but have cleared it of rubble left by men mining for lime, probably about a century ago, and other debris. They keep finding more hominid bones that click together like pieces of jigsaw puzzles. Since submitting the paper to Science in November, they have found at least two more individuals, one an infant.

“Every time we sift anything or pick up a rock, it has something in it,” Dr. Berger said.

One recent afternoon, he and Matthew, now 11, clambered down into the small rocky pit that remains of the original deep-set cave, eroded over eons. Their dog Tau paced excitedly along the edge. Dr. Berger put his hands against the rock where he had found a woman’s skeleton, and the child’s skull just above her — the pair described in Science.

Matthew Berger, 11, was nine when he stumbled into a major archeological discovery.

“There’s probably someone else in here,” he said.

He then went to a dirt road that miners had filled in with earth blasted from the cave. It was one of those chunks that Matthew likely found with the clavicle bone in it. Dr. Berger pointed to a hominid skeleton plainly visible in the road bed, now cleared of debris and fill. Two teeth lay right on the surface.

Dr. Berger, considering what may lie buried between the road and the cave, said “If there’s this density, what could be there? Oh, my!”

Celia W. Dugger reported from Cradle of Humankind, and John Noble Wilford from New York.

“The Human Spark” with Alan Alda | PBS


After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.

It was us.

Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.

What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?

In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.

Alda is uniquely qualified for this role. As an actor and author, and as the long-time host of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, he has a passion for both the humanities and science. He is bringing his trademark humor and curiosity to face-to-face conversations with leading researchers seeking the Human Spark, from archeologists finding clues in the fossilized bones and tools of our ancestors; to primatologists studying our nearest living relatives to explore what we have in common and what sets us apart; to neuroscientists peering into his mind with the latest brain scanning technologies.

In the first program, Alda witnesses the dazzling (apparent) debut of the Human Spark in the spectacular 30,000 year-old artwork carved and painted on the walls of caves in France. He explores the world of our predecessors in Europe, the Neanderthals, who until we came along had done just fine. The central question of this program: What did we possess that the Neanderthals didn’t – and where did it come from? Did the Human Spark really burst into life in Europe, as archeologists have long believed? Or did it originate earlier, on another continent? Finding the answer involves research as disparate as exploring why long distance running gave us large brains; reconstructing the weaponry that made possible – and relatively safe – the hunting of large animals; scanning the teeth of Neanderthal children in a giant particle accelerator to see how quickly they grew up; reading Neanderthal genes; and discovering the beads that are the first evidence of our species’ fascination with social status – and that provided our ancestors with a powerful new means of social communication.

In the second program, Alan joins researchers studying our fellow apes – mainly chimpanzees, our closest living relatives – to discover both what we share with them, and what we have that has evolved since we went our separate ways. Alan observes and participates in experiments that reveal chimps’ immense skills but also a striking indifference to how things work. He sees how chimps use tools and have culture – but also how those tools and cultures are very different from ours. He witnesses chimps showing signs of empathy and cooperation, but also sees how limited these characteristically human qualities are. And, in an unexpected twist, he visits a “dog lab” in Germany where he participates in experiments that show how, in many areas of social understanding, dogs – separated from humans by tens of millions of years of evolution – are considerably more advanced than our nearest relatives.

In the third program, we literally peer into Alda’s head with a variety of high-tech imaging techniques to see if we can find his Human Spark. We discover the unique circuitry that provides us with what is our most prized ability, language, and with the insight provided by a family whose members have profound problems with speech, we untangle the complex story of the FOXP2 gene, which appears to have provided us with at least some of the brain mechanisms needed for language. We find out what areas of Alan’s brain allow him to use complex tools and understand the minds of others, both essential human attributes. Alda will participate in tests of babies as young as three months for their ability to make moral judgments. And we’ll discover in Alan’s brain a critical network that works best when he’s just doing nothing and which, ironically, may in fact be a critical repository for the Human Spark.

The Human Spark is a production of The Chedd-Angier-Lewis Production Company for Thirteen/WNET New York. Executive Producer for Thirteen: Jared Lipworth. Executive Producer and Series Producer for Chedd-Angier-Lewis: Graham Chedd. Major funding for The Human Spark is provided by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family and The Winston Foundation.

Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?

by Bertrand Russell, 1930.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a very well-known philosopher,  mathematician, and  social activist in his time. He was the 1950 Nobel Laureate in Literature.

「• Lucretius = Titus Lucretius Carus (~99 BC – ~55 BC), a Roman poet and philosopher. Lucretius

My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.

「• Protestantism = One of 2 major factions of Christianity, opposed to Catholic. The protestants regards the scripture (Bible) supreme, while Catholics regards the leader (Pope) supreme. Protestantism. 」「• Franciscans = A faction of Catholics. Franciscan」「• Inquisition = a former tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church (1232-1820) created to discover and suppress heresy. Inquisition」「• Ku Klux Klan = a secret society of white Southerners in the United States; was formed in the 19th century to resist the emancipation of slaves; used terrorist tactics to suppress Black people. Ku Klux Klan

The word religion is used nowadays in a very loose sense. Some people, under the influence of extreme Protestantism, employ the word to denote any serious personal convictions as to morals or the nature of the universe. This use of the word is quite unhistorical. Religion is primarily a social phenomenon. Churches may owe their origin to teachers with strong individual convictions, but these teachers have seldom had much influence upon the churches that they have founded, whereas churches have had enormous influence upon the communities in which they flourished. To take the case that is of most interest to members of Western civilization: the teaching of Christ, as it appears in the Gospels, has had extraordinarily little to do with the ethics of Christians. The most important thing about Christianity, from a social and historical point of view, is not Christ but the church, and if we are to judge of Christianity as a social force we must not go to the Gospels for our material. Christ taught that you should give your goods to the poor, that you should not fight, that you should not go to church, and that you should not punish adultery. Neither Catholics nor Protestants have shown any strong desire to follow His teaching in any of these respects. Some of the Franciscans, it is true, attempted to teach the doctrine of apostolic poverty, but the Pope condemned them, and their doctrine was declared heretical. Or, again, consider such a text as “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” and ask yourself what influence such a text has had upon the Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan.

「• 1 = On Tibet, see also: Li Ao on Tibet and Dalai Lama

What is true of Christianity is equally true of Buddhism. The Buddha was amiable and enlightened; on his deathbed he laughed at his disciples for supposing that he was immortal. But the Buddhist priesthood — as it exists, for example, in Tibet — has been obscurantist, tyrannous, and cruel in the highest degree. 1

「• Galileo = (1564-1642) Italian mathematician, astronomer, who played a major role in the scientific revolution. Galileo advocated the theory that earth revolves around the sun, as opposed to Christian scripture that sun revolves around the earth. Galileo was eventually forced to recant his theory and spent the last years of his life under house arrest on orders of the Inquisition. Galileo」「• Darwin = (1809-1882) English natural scientist who formulated a theory of evolution by natural selection. Charles Darwin」「• Freud = (1856-1939) Psychologist, founder of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud」「• Pope Gregory = (~540-604) Pope Gregory I」「• Latinity = Studies of the Latin language. Once the language of scholars.」「• Renaissance = The transitional movement in Europe, marked by the revival of classical learning and art in Italy in the 15th century, and the similar revival following in other countries. Renaissance 」「• plebiscite = Referendum; a vote by the electorate determining public opinion on a question of national importance. Plebiscite

There is nothing accidental about this difference between a church and its founder. As soon as absolute truth is supposed to be contained in the sayings of a certain man, there is a body of experts to interpret his sayings, and these experts infallibly acquire power, since they hold the key to truth. Like any other privileged caste, they use their power for their own advantage. They are, however, in one respect worse than any other privileged caste, since it is their business to expound an unchanging truth, revealed once for all in utter perfection, so that they become necessarily opponents of all intellectual and moral progress. The church opposed Galileo and Darwin; in our own day it opposes Freud. In the days of its greatest power it went further in its opposition to the intellectual life. Pope Gregory the Great wrote to a certain bishop a letter beginning: “A report has reached us which we cannot mention without a blush, that thou expoundest grammar to certain friends.” The bishop was compelled by pontifical authority to desist from this wicked labor, and Latinity did not recover until the Renaissance. It is not only intellectually but also morally that religion is pernicious. I mean by this that it teaches ethical codes which are not conducive to human happiness. When, a few years ago, a plebiscite was taken in Germany as to whether the deposed royal houses should still be allowed to enjoy their private property, the churches in Germany officially stated that it would be contrary to the teaching of Christianity to deprive them of it. The churches, as everyone knows, opposed the abolition of slavery as long as they dared, and with a few well-advertised exceptions they oppose at the present day every movement toward economic justice. The Pope has officially condemned Socialism.

Christianity and Sex

「• ars amandi = art of love.」「• St. Paul = Paul the Apostle (b~64AD). The quotation about better to marry than burn is in Corinthians 7:9. The “burn” may refer to burning with sexual desire or burn in hell.」

The worst feature of the Christian religion, however, is its attitude toward sex — an attitude so morbid and so unnatural that it can be understood only when taken in relation to the sickness of the civilized world at the time the Roman Empire was decaying. We sometimes hear talk to the effect that Christianity improved the status of women. This is one of the grossest perversions of history that it is possible to make. Women cannot enjoy a tolerable position in society where it is considered of the utmost importance that they should not infringe a very rigid moral code. Monks have always regarded Woman primarily as the temptress; they have thought of her mainly as the inspirer of impure lusts. The teaching of the church has been, and still is, that virginity is best, but that for those who find this impossible marriage is permissible. “It is better to marry than to burn,” as St. Paul puts it. By making marriage indissoluble, and by stamping out all knowledge of the ars amandi, the church did what it could to secure that the only form of sex which it permitted should involve very little pleasure and a great deal of pain. The opposition to birth control has, in fact, the same motive: if a woman has a child a year until she dies worn out, it is not to be supposed that she will derive much pleasure from her married life; therefore birth control must be discouraged.

「• 2 = Today, AIDS is often considered as a punishment for homesexuals.」

The conception of Sin which is bound up with Christian ethics is one that does an extraordinary amount of harm, since it affords people an outlet for their sadism which they believe to be legitimate, and even noble. Take, for example, the question of the prevention of syphilis. It is known that, by precautions taken in advance, the danger of contracting this disease can be made negligible. Christians, however, object to the dissemination of knowledge of this fact, since they hold it good that sinners should be punished. They hold this so good that they are even willing that punishment should extend to the wives and children of sinners. There are in the world at the present moment many thousands of children suffering from congenital syphilis who would never have been born but for the desire of Christians to see sinners punished. I cannot understand how doctrines leading us to this fiendish cruelty can be considered to have any good effects upon morals. 2

It is not only in regard to sexual behaviour but also in regard to knowledge on sex subjects that the attitude of Christians is dangerous to human welfare. Every person who has taken the trouble to study the question in an unbiased spirit knows that the artificial ignorance on sex subjects which orthodox Christians attempt to enforce upon the young is extremely dangerous to mental and physical health, and causes in those who pick up their knowledge by the way of “improper” talk, as most children do, an attitude that sex is in itself indecent and ridiculous. I do not think there can be any defense for the view that knowledge is ever undesirable. I should not put barriers in the way of the acquisition of knowledge by anybody at any age. But in the particular case of sex knowledge there are much weightier arguments in its favor than in the case of most other knowledge. A person is much less likely to act wisely when he is ignorant than when he is instructed, and it is ridiculous to give young people a sense of sin because they have a natural curiosity about an important matter.

Every boy is interested in trains. Suppose we told him that an interest in trains is wicked; suppose we kept his eyes bandaged whenever he was in a train or on a railway station; suppose we never allowed the word “train” to be mentioned in his presence and preserved an impenetrable mystery as to the means by which he is transported from one place to another. The result would not be that he would cease to be interested in trains; on the contrary, he would become more interested than ever but would have a morbid sense of sin, because this interest had been represented to him as improper. Every boy of active intelligence could by this means be rendered in a greater or less degree neurasthenic. This is precisely what is done in the matter of sex; but, as sex is more interesting than trains, the results are worse. Almost every adult in a Christian community is more or less diseased nervously as a result of the taboo on sex knowledge when he or she was young. And the sense of sin which is thus artificially implanted is one of the causes of cruelty, timidity, and stupidity in later life. There is no rational ground of any sort or kind in keeping a child ignorant of anything that he may wish to know, whether on sex or on any other matter. And we shall never get a sane population until this fact is recognized in early education, which is impossible so long as the churches are able to control educational politics.

Leaving these comparatively detailed objections on one side, it is clear that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity demand a great deal of ethical perversion before they can be accepted. The world, we are told, was created by a God who is both good and omnipotent. Before He created the world He foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain; He is therefore responsible for all of it. It is useless to argue that the pain in the world is due to sin. In the first place, this is not true; it is not sin that causes rivers to overflow their banks or volcanoes to erupt. But even if it were true, it would make no difference. If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man. The usual Christian argument is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin and is therefore a good thing. This argument is, of course, only a rationalization of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument. I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children’s ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy in himself all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes. No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery.

The Objections to Religion

The objections to religion are of two sorts — intellectual and moral. The intellectual objection is that there is no reason to suppose any religion true; the moral objection is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow.

To take the intellectual objection first: there is a certain tendency in our practical age to consider that it does not much matter whether religious teaching is true or not, since the important question is whether it is useful. One question cannot, however, well be decided without the other. If we believe the Christian religion, our notions of what is good will be different from what they will be if we do not believe it. Therefore, to Christians, the effects of Christianity may seem good, while to unbelievers they may seem bad. Moreover, the attitude that one ought to believe such and such a proposition, independently of the question whether there is evidence in its favor, is an attitude which produces hostility to evidence and causes us to close our minds to every fact that does not suit our prejudices.

「• Matthew Arnold = English poet and literary critic (1822-1888). Matthew Arnold

A certain kind of scientific candor is a very important quality, and it is one which can hardly exist in a man who imagines that there are things which it is his duty to believe. We cannot, therefore, really decide whether religion does good without investigating the question whether religion is true. To Christians, Mohammedans, and Jews the most fundamental question involved in the truth of religion is the existence of God. In the days when religion was still triumphant the word “God” had a perfectly definite meaning; but as a result of the onslaughts of the Rationalists the word has become paler and paler, until it is difficult to see what people mean when they assert that they believe in God. Let us take, for purposes of argument, Matthew Arnold’s definition: “A power not ourselves that makes for righteousness.” Perhaps we might make this even more vague and ask ourselves whether we have any evidence of purpose in this universe apart from the purposes of living beings on the surface of this planet.

「• Eddington = English astophysicist remembered for his popular elucidation of relativity theory (1882-1944) Arthur Stanley Eddington

The usual argument of religious people on this subject is roughly as follows: “I and my friends are persons of amazing intelligence and virtue. It is hardly conceivable that so much intelligence and virtue could have come about by chance. There must, therefore, be someone at least as intelligent and virtuous as we are who set the cosmic machinery in motion with a view to producing Us.” I am sorry to say that I do not find this argument so impressive as it is found by those who use it. The universe is large; yet, if we are to believe Eddington, there are probably nowhere else in the universe beings as intelligent as men. If you consider the total amount of matter in the world and compare it with the amount forming the bodies of intelligent beings, you will see that the latter bears an almost infinitesimal proportion to the former. Consequently, even if it is enormously improbable that the laws of chance will produce an organism capable of intelligence out of a casual selection of atoms, it is nevertheless probable that there will be in the universe that very small number of such organisms that we do in fact find.

Then again, considered as the climax to such a vast process, we do not really seem to me sufficiently marvelous. Of course, I am aware that many divines are far more marvelous than I am, and that I cannot wholly appreciate merits so far transcending my own. Nevertheless, even after making allowances under this head, I cannot but think that Omnipotence operating through all eternity might have produced something better. And then we have to reflect that even this result is only a flash in the pan. The earth will not always remain habitable; the human race will die out, and if the cosmic process is to justify itself hereafter it will have to do so elsewhere than on the surface of our planet. And even if this should occur, it must stop sooner or later. The second law of thermodynamics makes it scarcely possible to doubt that the universe is running down, and that ultimately nothing of the slightest interest will be possible anywhere. Of course, it is open to us to say that when that time comes God will wind up the machinery again; but if we do not say this, we can base our assertion only upon faith, not upon one shred of scientific evidence. So far as scientific evidence goes, the universe has crawled by slow stages to a somewhat pitiful result on this earth and is going to crawl by still more pitiful stages to a condition of universal death. If this is to be taken as evidence of a purpose, I can only say that the purpose is one that does not appeal to me. I see no reason, therefore, to believe in any sort of God, however vague and however attenuated. I leave on one side the old metaphysical arguments, since religious apologists themselves have thrown them over.

The Soul and Immortality

「• St. Louis = Louis IX of France (1214-1270). King of France and son of Louis VIII; he led two unsuccessful crusades; considered an ideal medieval king. Louis IX of France. Crusades were a series of military compaign of a religious character waged by much of Christian Europe against Muslims.」

The Christian emphasis on the individual soul has had a profound influence upon the ethics of Christian communities. It is a doctrine fundamentally akin to that of the Stoics, arising as theirs did in communities that could no longer cherish political hopes. The natural impulse of the vigorous person of decent character is to attempt to do good, but if he is deprived of all political power and of all opportunity to influence events, he will be deflected from his natural course and will decide that the important thing is to be good. This is what happened to the early Christians; it led to a conception of personal holiness as something quite independent of beneficient action, since holiness had to be something that could be achieved by people who were impotent in action. Social virtue came therefore to be excluded from Christian ethics. To this day conventional Christians think an adulterer more wicked than a politician who takes bribes, although the latter probably does a thousand times as much harm. The medieval conception of virtue, as one sees in their pictures, was of something wishy-washy, feeble, and sentimental. The most virtuous man was the man who retired from the world; the only men of action who were regarded as saints were those who wasted the lives and substance of their subjects in fighting the Turks, like St. Louis. The church would never regard a man as a saint because he reformed the finances, or the criminal law, or the judiciary. Such mere contributions to human welfare would be regarded as of no importance. I do not believe there is a single saint in the whole calendar whose saintship is due to work of public utility. With this separation between the social and the moral person there went an increasing separation between soul and body, which has survived in Christian metaphysics and in the systems derived from Descartes. One may say, broadly speaking, that the body represents the social and public part of a man, whereas the soul represents the private part. In emphasizing the soul, Christian ethics has made itself completely individualistic. I think it is clear that the net result of all the centuries of Christianity has been to make men more egotistic, more shut up in themselves, than nature made them; for the impulses that naturally take a man outside the walls of his ego are those of sex, parenthood, and patriotism or herd instinct. Sex the church did everything it could to decry and degrade; family affection was decried by Christ himself and the bulk of his followers; and patriotism could find no place among the subject populations of the Roman Empire. The polemic against the family in the Gospels is a matter that has not received the attention it deserves. The church treats the Mother of Christ with reverence, but He Himself showed little of this attitude. “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” (John ii, 4) is His way of speaking to her. He says also that He has come to set a man at variance against his father, the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and that he that loveth father and mother more than Him is not worthy of Him (Matt. x, 35-37). All this means the breakup of the biological family tie for the sake of creed — an attitude which had a great deal to do with the intolerance that came into the world with the spread of Christianity.

This individualism culminated in the doctrine of the immortality of the individual soul, which was to enjoy hereafter endless bliss or endless woe according to circumstances. The circumstances upon which this momentous difference depended were somewhat curious. For example, if you died immediately after a priest had sprinkled water upon you while pronouncing certain words, you inherited eternal bliss; whereas, if after a long and virtuous life you happened to be struck by lightning at a moment when you were using bad language because you had broken a bootlace, you would inherit eternal torment. I do not say that the modern Protestant Christian believes this, nor even perhaps the modern Catholic Christian who has not been adequately instructed in theology; but I do say that this is the orthodox doctrine and was firmly believed until recent times. The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out: by this means they secured that these infants went to Heaven. No orthodox Christian can find any logical reason for condemning their action, although all nowadays do so. In countless ways the doctrine of personal immortality in its Christian form has had disastrous effects upon morals, and the metaphysical separation of soul and body has had disastrous effects upon philosophy.

Sources of Intolerance

「• Occidental = Western; Europe.」「• Constantine = Emperor of Rome who adopted the Christian faith and stopped the persecution of Christians (280-337). Constantine I」「• Herodotus = (~484 BC – ~425 BC) the ancient Greek known as the father of history in Western culture. Herodotus」「• Zeus = The chief deity of the ancient Greeks, and ruler of the upper world. Zeus

The intolerance that spread over the world with the advent of Christianity is one of the most curious features, due, I think, to the Jewish belief in righteousness and in the exclusive reality of the Jewish God. Why the Jews should have had these peculiarities I do not know. They seem to have developed during the captivity as a reaction against the attempt to absorb the Jews into alien populations. However that may be, the Jews, and more especially the prophets, invented emphasis upon personal righteousness and the idea that it is wicked to tolerate any religion except one. These two ideas have had an extraordinarily disastrous effect upon Occidental history. The church made much of the persecution of Christians by the Roman State before the time of Constantine. This persecution, however, was slight and intermittent and wholly political. At all times, from the age of Constantine to the end of the seventeenth century, Christians were far more fiercely persecuted by other Christians than they ever were by the Roman emperors. Before the rise of Christianity this persecuting attitude was unknown to the ancient world except among the Jews. If you read, for example, Herodotus, you find a bland and tolerant account of the habits of the foreign nations he visited. Sometimes, it is true, a peculiarly barbarous custom may shock him, but in general he is hospitable to foreign gods and foreign customs. He is not anxious to prove that people who call Zeus by some other name will suffer eternal punishment and ought to be put to death in order that their punishment may begin as soon as possible. This attitude has been reserved for Christians. It is true that the modern Christian is less robust, but that is not thanks to Christianity; it is thanks to the generations of freethinkers, who from the Renaissance to the present day, have made Christians ashamed of many of their traditional beliefs. It is amusing to hear the modern Christian telling you how mild and rationalistic Christianity really is and ignoring the fact that all its mildness and rationalism is due to the teaching of men who in their own day were persecuted by all orthodox Christians. Nobody nowadays believes that the world was created in 4004 b.c.; but not so very long ago skepticism on this point was thought an abominable crime. My great-great-grandfather, after observing the depth of the lava on the slopes of Etna, came to the conclusion that the world must be older than the orthodox supposed and published this opinion in a book. For this offense he was cut by the county and ostracized from society. Had he been a man in humbler circumstances, his punishment would doubtless have been more severe. It is no credit to the orthodox that they do not now believe all the absurdities that were believed 150 years ago. The gradual emasculation of the Christian doctrine has been effected in spite of the most vigorous resistance, and solely as the result of the onslaughts of freethinkers.

The Doctrine of Free Will

「• Materialists = Materialism; the philosophical theory that matter is the only reality. materialism

The attitude of the Christians on the subject of natural law has been curiously vacillating and uncertain. There was, on the one hand, the doctrine of free will, in which the great majority of Christians believed; and this doctrine required that the acts of human beings at least should not be subject to natural law. There was, on the other hand, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a belief in God as the Lawgiver and in natural law as one of the main evidences of the existence of a Creator. In recent times the objection to the reign of law in the interests of free will has begun to be felt more strongly than the belief in natural law as affording evidence for a Lawgiver. Materialists used the laws of physics to show, or attempt to show, that the movements of human bodies are mechanically determined, and that consequently everything that we say and every change of position that we effect fall outside the sphere of any possible free will. If this be so, whatever may be left for our unfettered volitions is of little value. If, when a man writes a poem or commits a murder, the bodily movements involved in his act result solely from physical causes, it would seem absurd to put up a statue to him in the one case and to hang him in the other. There might in certain metaphysical systems remain a region of pure thought in which the will would be free; but, since that can be communicated to others only by means of bodily movement, the realm of freedom would be one that could never be the subject of communication and could never have any social importance.

「• Descartes = René Descartes (1596-1650). A highly influential French philosopher and mathematician. Descartes

Then, again, evolution has had a considerable influence upon those Christians who have accepted it. They have seen that it will not do to make claims on behalf of man which are totally different from those which are made on behalf of other forms of life. Therefore, in order to safeguard free will in man, they have objected to every attempt at explaining the behaviour of living matter in terms of physical and chemical laws. The position of Descartes, to the effect that all lower animals are automata, no longer finds favor with liberal theologians. The doctrine of continuity makes them inclined to go a step further still and maintain that even what is called dead matter is not rigidly governed in its behaviour by unalterable laws. They seem to have overlooked the fact that, if you abolish the reign of law, you also abolish the possibility of miracles, since miracles are acts of God which contravene the laws governing ordinary phenomena. I can, however, imagine the modern liberal theologian maintaining with an air of profundity that all creation is miraculous, so that he no longer needs to fasten upon certain occurrences as special evidence of Divine intervention.

Under the influence of this reaction against natural law, some Christian apologists have seized upon the latest doctrines of the atom, which tend to show that the physical laws in which we have hitherto believed have only an approximate and average truth as applied to large numbers of atoms, while the individual electron behaves pretty much as it likes. My own belief is that this is a temporary phase, and that the physicists will in time discover laws governing minute phenomena, although these laws may differ considerably from those of traditional physics. However that may be, it is worth while to observe that the modern doctrines as to minute phenomena have no bearing upon anything that is of practical importance. Visible motions, and indeed all motions that make any difference to anybody, involve such large numbers of atoms that they come well within the scope of the old laws. To write a poem or commit a murder (reverting to our previous illustration), it is necessary to move an appreciable mass of ink or lead. The electrons composing the ink may be dancing freely around their little ballroom, but the ballroom as a whole is moving according to the old laws of physics, and this alone is what concerns the poet and his publisher. The modern doctrines, therefore, have no appreciable bearing upon any of those problems of human interest with which the theologian is concerned.

The free-will question consequently remains just where it was. Whatever may be thought about it as a matter of ultimate metaphysics, it is quite clear that nobody believes it in practice. Everyone has always believed that it is possible to train character; everyone has always known that alcohol or opium will have a certain effect on behaviour. The apostle of free will maintains that a man can by will power avoid getting drunk, but he does not maintain that when drunk a man can say “British Constitution” as clearly as if he were sober. And everybody who has ever had to do with children knows that a suitable diet does more to make them virtuous than the most eloquent preaching in the world. The one effect that the free-will doctrine has in practice is to prevent people from following out such common-sense knowledge to its rational conclusion. When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behaviour is a result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination.

No man treats a motorcar as foolishly as he treats another human being. When the car will not go, he does not attribute its annoying behaviour to sin; he does not say, “You are a wicked motorcar, and I shall not give you any more petrol until you go.” He attempts to find out what is wrong and to set it right. An analogous way of treating human beings is, however, considered to be contrary to the truths of our holy religion. And this applies even in the treatment of little children. Many children have bad habits which are perpetuated by punishment but will probably pass away of themselves if left unnoticed. Nevertheless, nurses, with very few exceptions, consider it right to inflict punishment, although by so doing they run the risk of causing insanity. When insanity has been caused it is cited in courts of law as a proof of the harmfulness of the habit, not of the punishment. (I am alluding to a recent prosecution for obscenity in the State of New York.)

Reforms in education have come very largely through the study of the insane and feeble-minded, because they have not been held morally responsible for their failures and have therefore been treated more scientifically than normal children. Until very recently it was held that, if a boy could not learn his lesson, the proper cure was caning or flogging. This view is nearly extinct in the treatment of children, but it survives in the criminal law. It is evident that a man with a propensity to crime must be stopped, but so must a man who has hydrophobia and wants to bite people, although nobody considers him morally responsible. A man who is suffering from plague has to be imprisoned until he is cured, although nobody thinks him wicked. The same thing should be done with a man who suffers from a propensity to commit forgery; but there should be no more idea of guilt in the one case than in the other. And this is only common sense, though it is a form of common sense to which Christian ethics and metaphysics are opposed.

To judge of the moral influence of any institution upon a community, we have to consider the kind of impulse which is embodied in the institution and the degree to which the institution increases the efficacy of the impulse in that community. Sometimes the impulse concerned is quite obvious, sometimes it is more hidden. An Alpine club, for example, obviously embodies the impulse to adventure, and a learned society embodies the impulse toward knowledge. The family as an institution embodies jealousy and parental feeling; a football club or a political party embodies the impulse toward competitive play; but the two greatest social institutions — namely, the church and the state — are more complex in their psychological motivation. The primary purpose of the state is clearly security against both internal criminals and external enemies. It is rooted in the tendency of children to huddle together when they are frightened and to look for a grown-up person who will give them a sense of security. The church has more complex origins. Undoubtedly the most important source of religion is fear; this can be seen in the present day, since anything that causes alarm is apt to turn people’s thoughts to God. Battle, pestilence, and shipwreck all tend to make people religious. Religion has, however, other appeals besides that of terror; it appeals specifically to our human self-esteem. If Christianity is true, mankind are not such pitiful worms as they seem to be; they are of interest to the Creator of the universe, who takes the trouble to be pleased with them when they behave well and displeased when they behave badly. This is a great compliment. We should not think of studying an ants’ nest to find out which of the ants performed their formicular duty, and we should certainly not think of picking out those individual ants who were remiss and putting them into a bonfire. If God does this for us, it is a compliment to our importance; and it is even a pleasanter compliment if he awards to the good among us everlasting happiness in heaven. Then there is the comparitively modern idea that cosmic evolution is all designed to bring about the sort of results which we call good — that is to say, the sort of results that give us pleasure. Here again it is flattering to suppose that the universe is controlled by a Being who shares our tastes and prejudices.

The Idea of Righteousness

The third psychological impulse which is embodied in religion is that which has led to the conception of righteousness. I am aware that many freethinkers treat this conception with great respect and hold that it should be preserved in spite of the decay of dogmatic religion. I cannot agree with them on this point. The psychological analysis of the idea of righteousness seems to me to show that it is rooted in undesirable passions and ought not to be strengthened by the imprimatur of reason. Righteousness and unrighteousness must be taken together; it is impossible to stress the one without stressing the other also. Now, what is “unrighteousness” in practise? It is in practise behaviour of a kind disliked by the herd. By calling it unrighteousness, and by arranging an elaborate system of ethics around this conception, the herd justifies itself in wreaking punishment upon the objects of its own dislike, while at the same time, since the herd is righteous by definition, it enhances its own self-esteem at the very moment when it lets loose its impulse to cruelty. This is the psychology of lynching, and of the other ways in which criminals are punished. The essence of the conception of righteousness, therefore, is to afford an outlet for sadism by cloaking cruelty as justice.

But, it will be said, the account you have been giving of righteousness is wholly inapplicable to the Hebrew prophets, who, after all, on your own showing, invented the idea. There is truth in this: righteousness in the mouths of the Hebrew prophets meant what was approved by them and Yahweh. One finds the same attitude expressed in the Acts of the Apostles, where the Apostles began a pronouncement with the words “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us” (Acts xv, 28). This kind of individual certainty as to God’s tastes and opinions cannot, however, be made the basis of any institution. That has always been the difficulty with which Protestantism has had to contend: a new prophet could maintain that his revelation was more authentic than those of his predecessors, and there was nothing in the general outlook of Protestantism to show that this claim was invalid. Consequently Protestantism split into innumerable sects, which weakened one another; and there is reason to suppose that a hundred years hence Catholicism will be the only effective representation of the Christian faith. In the Catholic Church inspiration such as the prophets enjoyed has its place; but it is recognized that phenomena which look rather like genuine divine inspiration may be inspired by the Devil, and it is the business of the church to discriminate, just as it is the business of the art connoisseur to know a genuine Leonardo from a forgery. In this way revelation becomes institutionalized at the same time. Righteousness is what the church approves, and unrighteousness is what it disapproves. Thus the effective part of the conception of righteousness is a justification of herd antipathy.

It would seem, therefore, that the three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit, and hatred. The purpose of religion, one may say, is to give an air of respectability to these passions, provided they run in certain channels. It is because these passions make, on the whole, for human misery that religion is a force for evil, since it permits men to indulge these passions without restraint, where but for its sanction they might, at least to a certain degree, control them.

「• concupiscence = sexual lust.」「• innocuous = harmless.」

I can imagine at this point an objection, not likely to be urged perhaps by most orthodox believers but nevertheless worthy to be examined. Hatred and fear, it may be said, are essential human characteristics; mankind always has felt them and always will. The best that you can do with them, I may be told, is to direct them into certain channels in which they are less harmful than they would be in certain other channels. A Christian theologian might say that their treatment by the church in analogous to its treatment of the sex impulse, which it deplores. It attempts to render concupiscence innocuous by confining it within the bounds of matrimony. So, it may be said, if mankind must inevitably feel hatred, it is better to direct this hatred against those who are really harmful, and this is precisely what the church does by its conception of righteousness.

To this contention there are two replies — one comparatively superficial; the other going to the root of the matter. The superficial reply is that the church’s conception of righteousness is not the best possible; the fundamental reply is that hatred and fear can, with our present psychological knowledge and our present industrial technique, be eliminated altogether from human life.

To take the first point first. The church’s conception of righteousness is socially undesirable in various ways — first and foremost in its depriciation of intelligence and science. This defect is inherited from the Gospels. Christ tells us to become as little children, but little children cannot understand the differential calculus, or the principles of currency, or the modern methods of combating disease. To acquire such knowledge is no part of our duty, according to the church. The church no longer contends that knowledge is in itself sinful, though it did so in its palmy days; but the acquisition of knowledge, even though not sinful, is dangerous, since it may lead to a pride of intellect, and hence to a questioning of the Christian dogma. Take, for example, two men, one of whom has stamped out yellow fever throughout some large region in the tropics but has in the course of his labors had occasional relations with women to whom he was not married; while the other has been lazy and shiftless, begetting a child a year until his wife died of exhaustion and taking so little care of his children that half of them died from preventable causes, but never indulging in illicit sexual intercourse. Every good Christian must maintain that the second of these men is more virtuous than the first. Such an attitude is, of course, superstitious and totally contrary to reason. Yet something of this absurdity is inevitable so long as avoidance of sin is thought more important than positive merit, and so long as the importance of knowledge as a help to a useful life is not recognized.

The second and more fundamental objection to the utilization of fear and hatred practised by the church is that these emotions can now be almost wholly eliminated from human nature by educational, economic, and political reforms. The educational reforms must be the basis, since men who feel hatred and fear will also admire these emotions and wish to perpetuate them, although this admiration and wish will probably be unconscious, as it is in the ordinary Christian. An education designed to eliminate fear is by no means difficult to create. It is only necessary to treat a child with kindness, to put him in an environment where initiative is possible without disastrous results, and to save him from contact with adults who have irrational terrors, whether of the dark, of mice, or of social revolution. A child must also not be subject to severe punishment, or to threats, or to grave and excessive reproof. To save a child from hatred is a somewhat more elaborate business. Situations arousing jealousy must be very carefully avoided by means of scrupulous and exact justice as between different children. A child must feel himself the object of warm affection on the part of some at least of the adults with whom he has to do, and he must not be thwarted in his natural activities and curiosities except when danger to life or health is concerned. In particular, there must be no taboo on sex knowledge, or on conversation about matters which conventional people consider improper. If these simple precepts are observed from the start, the child will be fearless and friendly.

On entering adult life, however, a young person so educated will find himself or herself plunged into a world full of injustice, full of cruelty, full of preventable misery. The injustice, the cruelty, and the misery that exist in the modern world are an inheritance from the past, and their ultimate source is economic, since life-and-death competition for the means of subsistence was in former days inevitable. It is not inevitable in our age. With our present industrial technique we can, if we choose, provide a tolerable subsistence for everybody. We could also secure that the world’s population should be stationary if we were not prevented by the political influence of churches which prefer war, pestilence, and famine to contraception. The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured; the chief obstacle to its utilization for that purpose is the teaching of religion. Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.


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