17 October 2010

The Roots of Human Morality

This is a nicely nuanced article in the New York Times, written by Frans de Waal, a primatologist, exploring the roots of human morality in our evolutionary heritage. His view of empathy and altruism is a nice alternative to what he coins as "Veneer Theory", which tends to see all human behavior as fundamentally selfish. He concludes somewhat ambiguously by minimizing the necessity of a God in the evolution of morality while also recognizing the integral part that religion has had on our lives.

Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concernas yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion. 

15 October 2010

13 October 2010

The End of War

During a college World History course I remember a professor mentioning that deaths from war declined decade by decade over the entire 20th century. I referenced this many times to allay the fears of people complaining about how war is becoming more prevalent and deadly. One of those times I mentioned the trend, a coworker said, "That's not true." To which I responded, "Yes it is." "No it's not." "Yes it is." And so on until I decided to go and look up the reference for myself. This led me to the Human Security Report, and I read the entire 2005 report.

What I found was far beyond a simple graph showing a decline in battle deaths (I was correct, by the way). The report was the first of its kind to document a dramatic global decline in political violence since the end of the Cold War, and the rise of effective peacekeeping missions of the UN. Its conclusions challenge conventional wisdom. Since global media gives coverage to new wars, but pays no attention to conflicts that are ending, nobody was paying attention to the greatest peace the world has ever seen.

11 October 2010

Cooperation for Survival

If asked whether nature is fundamentally competitive or cooperative, I think most people would say competitive. The "struggle for survival" or "survival of the fittest" are often used as one-line phrases to sum up a view that fierce competition is the best way to advance in evolution, and that every organism's highest goal is to reproduce as much as possible. A classic example of this might be a male lion battling a rival for domination of a pride, another might be the finches on the Galapagos islands that Darwin studied.

This idea of struggle and rightful domination is an ideology that carries over into economics and politics. The view of modern capitalism can be summed in one of two ways, the first says that the individual pursuit of self-interest is good for the whole, and the other invokes the struggle for existence seen in nature and shows no sympathy for those unable to support themselves. Both approaches were like intellectual candy for the rich and wealthy of the 20th century and proved irresistible. They justify selfishness by attributing some kind of overall good to it. The struggle for survival made its way into social policies that tried to model the natural forces of animal and plant communities in a kind of social evolution in which weaker peoples would be eliminated by stronger ones.

There is a problem with all that: nature is fundamentally cooperative. The original competitive ideology was formed from a very narrow view of nature that ignores much more important concepts. While watching two lions fight to dominate a pride, one can also see that they take great steps to avoid fighting in the first place, that the internal organs of each animal are working in perfect cooperation, bacteria in the lion's stomach is used for digestion, female lions hunt for the group, prey animals have a birth rate that balanced out against predation, plants are pollinated by bees, plants provide sweet fruits in exchange for moving seed around, fungus live in a mycorrhizal association with tree roots, rhizobia fix nitrogen for legumes, algae and fungus have an association in lichen, and on a microscopic level the composition and evolution of all eukaryotes are a result of a symbiosis between cells, causing all of the above to exist in the first place. Even the relationship between prey and predators is cooperative in a sense, if the lions killed the prey too efficiently they would be without food and would perish.

Darwin relied on analysis of individual parts and saw that everything was trying to reproduce itself as much as possible and consume resources. With this analysis of a part, he concluded that nature is ruled by conflict. Now a new kind of biology is being studied, biology of whole living systems. This blog post documents some of the findings, among them that "nature uses extraordinarily ingenious techniques to avoid conflict and competition, and that cooperation is extraordinarily widespread throughout all of nature." Another author spent seven years reviewing more than 400 research studies dealing with competition and cooperation in human relationships, and wrote, "The ideal amount of competition . . . in any environment, the classroom, the workplace, the family, the playing field, is none . . . . [Competition] is always destructive."

The Art of Buying Stuff

How can we become conscientious consumers? Melinda, over at the super-cool blog "Time Capsule on an Urban Homestead" has drawn up a list of things she thinks about when making a purchase. I find it helpful...

08 October 2010

In peril? There's a Help for that.

Why study a prayer with another Baha'i, rather than just simply praying?

Because we forget the obvious.  We forget that foolish questions have mighty answers.

"My turn to ask a question?  Okay, um ... God is the Help in what?"

Recently, amid the stressors of full-time work, part-time schooling, full-time advancingtheprocessofentrybytroops, and more than a little bit of sleep deprivation, I sat down, fully miserable, and realized,

"Crap.  I'm in peril.  Help!"

It made me laugh.  The stupid snot-still-running-down-the-face-from-crying laugh that you never let anyone but your houseplants see.  How could it not?  It was the most ridiculous realization that could come to me.

But it did come.  And what is sobering is that it might not have.  I could have continued saying the words over and over again, no longer giving them any thought after 12 years of daily repetition.  Because the answer is so obvious.  Because the question is so stupid.

It is a worthy endeavor to visit another believer and study a prayer together.  It is worthy!  It doesn't make you a fool to study the beauty of a single, simple shell by the edge of the sea.  

May we never consider ourselves too grand for the answers enshrined in the Holy Writings of Baha'u'llah.
May we never feel so superior that we no longer feel comfortable asking our fellow believers and our souls, "What does this mean?"
May we learn to speak a single language, a language of shared understanding that is rooted in the knowledge of the Words of God.
May we always find a way to remember that there is Help for our peril.

And through all of this, may we all find our path to the Self-Subsisting.

04 October 2010

29 Nations of the Earth

I recently came across a summary of Nine Nations of North America, written by Joel Garreau in 1981. In it, he argues that national and state borders are largely arbitrary, and he redrew the borders of North America according to what he thought were following cultural and economic lines. Thus, my home in Portland, Oregon was part of the nation of "Ecotopia".

As an admirer of maps and geography, I was immediately drawn into the theme and thought the premise was brilliant. I live in a state and nation that have arbitrary borders that don't follow any particular logic. Big, square states dominate the western USA, cutting across rivers, mountains, and lakes like their borders were drawn by a child who never set foot on their ground. Why not take another look at better ways to administer land?

It took me just a few seconds reviewing his map to decide that I disagreed with his rationale for borders. For starters, he left huge swaths of land empty of authority and completely left out what should be the main concern of administrative boundaries: water. Then it took me just a few more seconds to decide that I should perform the same exercise and draw my own nations of North America. Then it took me just one more second to decide that I should perform the exercise on the entire earth. Then it took me about 20 hours of work spread out over several weeks to finish the maps using Google Earth, and thus my thought experiment Twenty Nine Nations of the Earth was born.