Our family has a longstanding relationship with the speed of light. We take care never to exceed it, for one thing, no matter how tempting. But there’s more than that.
I had all sorts of light-related fascinations when I was a kid — that light had a speed at all, for starters, and that it was so unimaginably fast, yet also finite and measurable. I knew the moon was a light-second away, the sun eight light-minutes, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, 4.2 light years. I knew the Milky Way, one galaxy of billions, is 100,000 light years side to side.
Light helped me finally grasp the real immensity of the universe and my own infinitesimalitude.
Light is SO much faster than (pfft) sound — almost a million times faster — which is why lightning is already kicking back with a light beer when thunder comes panting up behind.
This stuff gave me endless fodder for discussion on first dates. It also neatly took care of second dates.
When it came time to marry, I limited the pool to those with no more than two degrees of separation from the speed of light. Fortunately my college friend Becca attended the same high school as Nobel laureate Albert Michelson, he of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which laid the groundwork for special relativity by showing that light weirdly measures at the same speed even if you are moving rapidly toward or away from the source.
Becca and I were married in a San Francisco Lutheran church with You-Know-What streaming through the windows.
Our kids have picked up the thread. As we drove home from his football practice four six years ago, Connor (then 12) asked why time slows down as you go faster. (The previous week we had discussed the very cool Hafele-Keating experiment in which cesium clocks flown around the world differed from identical clocks on the ground by a few nanoseconds. I think I spotted the exact moment during the practice that he was thinking about Hafele-Keating instead of Offensive-Lineman.) I said our velocity through space plus our velocity through time equals the speed of light, so the faster you go through space, the slower you necessarily go through time.
In less than five seconds, he said, “So light doesn’t experience time, then.”
Holy buckets. I’d never thought of it.
A few years later, standing in the dark waiting for the school bus, I discovered that I’d never shared with Delaney (then 9) the insanely cool fact that many of the stars we see probably aren’t there anymore. Some may have blinked out before the dinosaurs went extinct, but the end of the column of photons, even at 186,000 miles a second, still hasn’t reached us. Tomorrow morning we might suddenly see a “new,” bright star in the sky, which is actually a nova that happened millions of years before. That’s what nova literally means — a new star. But it isn’t really being born — it’s dying.
She made all those astonished, comprehending sounds I’ve come to love, and we quickly re-combed her hair as the bus pulled up.
On the heels of last month’s the 2011 announcement that the speed of light might have been exceeded by neutrinos at CERN, Becca took the opportunity to give her second graders a little insight into how science works. “All these years we thought light was the fastest thing possible,” she said. “Even Albert Einstein said that was true. Now maybe, just maybe, scientists have found that it’s possible for something to go even faster. First they have to test and test again to be sure, and if it is, they’ll say, ‘Wow, we were wrong. We have to change our minds.'”
It’s true that we’re capable of upending our Newtons and Einsteins when the evidence insists, but of course it never happens quite as gladly as we sometimes claim. Individual scientists are just as prone as the rest of us to kick and scream and bite to protect their favorite conclusions, until the collective enterprise of science itself busts them upside the head. The important message for these second graders, though, is that science contains the ability, the means, even the willingness to change its conclusions in light of new evidence, despite whatever preferences individual scientists might have. (The CERN scientists assumed they made an error in measurement, by the way, something that has happened before — and a team in the Netherlands think they’ve found the error.)
All this light conversation brought me back to experiments I conducted around age seven, just inside my front door in St. Louis, Missouri. The edge of the glass on our front storm door was beveled, which formed a little prism, which at a certain time of day threw a tiny, intense rainbow on the floor.
I decided I was going to catch that rainbow. In a shoebox.
In what may be a perfect illustration of the seven-year-old mind, I knew that I would have to move faster than light to do this, but had not received the memo specifically prohibiting such a thing.
I found a shoebox and held it above the rainbow. I slowed my breathing and concentrated…then CLOMP! brought the box down on the rainbow.
Too slow. The damn thing was on top of the box.
I’d do this for a good half hour at a time before giving up — but only for that day. I remember thinking maybe light was a little slower in the winter, which was why it was colder then. So I tried in January. Even then, it was always just a liiiittle faster than I was, and the rainbow appeared on top of the box.
I eventually gave up my dream of catching the rainbow. But these experiments at CERN have given me hope. I just need to find a box made of neutrinos, and I’m back in the game.
Charlie’s Playhouse was a company that made cool, fun, unique, and scientifically accurate toys and other products related to evolution. It was founded and run by one of my favorite people ever, Kate Miller, along with her two young boys and “Charlie” Darwin.
But despite winning awards and high praise, the company’s sales didn’t keep pace with expenses, and Kate made the sad decision to close the doors a while back. “The four of us turned out to be great at product design but lousy at marketing,” Kate said. She decided instead to license out their products to other manufacturers.
My favorite product from the Playhouse was the Giant Evolution Timeline, a long, laminated wonder that ran down the hallway of our house for several years. My kids would stop on the way to their rooms and run their fingers along this or that illustrated branch of evolutionary history. It was awesome.
Now Kate has announced that a company is interested in licensing the Giant Timeline, and is doing an online test of market interest. If they get enough pre-orders, the timeline will go into production!
There is no obligation, the first product is free, and no credit card number required. Now that’s hard to beat.
“This was always the dream,” says Kate. “Maybe if one kid’s evolution toy is generally available, then other companies will see there is a market and make some other stuff.”
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
You’ve probably seen the petitions going around to end the Daylight Savings Time Hokey Pokey we do every year. I’ve always liked it myself. It shakes me up twice a year, makes me say things to the kids like, “Ooh, remember how dark it was at this time yesterday?” It’s nicely weird.
But it hit me this morning that I’ve got it all wrong. I really ought to hate it.
So now I do.
I’ve always loved things that make me feel like I’m on a planet and hated things that paper over that astonishing fact. Most of the time it’s easy to forget our actual situation, to lapse into the illusion of normalcy Douglas Adams talked about. But sometimes I manage to feel the real deal for a minute.
Years ago, in our house in Minnesota, I could lie in bed at a particular time of night, look out the window at a gable that jutted into the night sky, hold very still, and watch the moon ever so slowly break into view from behind it. I could see the Earth turn.
Thierry Cohen’s spectacular photographic series “Darkened Cities” is a sad reminder of the planetary perspective we’ve lost because of city lights.
(I won’t copy the copyrighted images, but if you haven’t seen them, oh my gourd, GO.)
When I lived in LA, I was properly terrified of earthquakes. But after each decently big one, I always got a little twinge of schadenfreude watching that cocky city grind to a halt for a few hours: Oh riiight, we live in smooshable bodies in breakable buildings built on a jittery crack in the surface of a whirling ball! Scary, but nice in its way.
So here’s the deal with the time change. If we left the clocks alone, we’d feel the shrinking of the day in the fall and the expanding in the spring more than we do. Without those two artificial twitches interrupting the big planetary respiration — without the Wait, wut? of the downshift and upshift — we’d feel the annual breathing of night and day gradually, naturally. Mornings would be too dark for too long in winter, and too light too early in summer, and we’d have to deal with it. In the process, we’d get a better feeling for the shape of the year, and we’d be in a little bit less denial about what we’re sitting on. Maybe.
Back from an EPIC two-week family vacation in California, probably our last big trip as a family unit.
We ended in Yosemite, the most sock-off-knocking place on Earth, staying outside of the park in the tiny Gold Rush town of Coulterville at the Hotel Jeffery. It was an unmissable opportunity. The Jeffery, you see, is haunted. In my enthusiasm for the idea, I even booked Room 22, “the most haunted room in the hotel.”
Right after I booked and paid for it, I ran and told the kids about this fun thing I’d done, thinking they’d jump up and down. What a putz. Connor (16) thought it was cool, but the girls pretty much jumped up and down on my head.
“What were you THINKING?!” Laney asked. “Seriously, Dad, jeez!”
“Well most of the hotels near the park are already booked!” I said defensively. “And this one had a lot of rooms available, and they’re uh…they’re cheap.”
“Gosh I wonder why.”
It shouldn’t have surprised me. My kids have a healthy skepticism, partly because I’ve been pulling their legs continually since birth. (Hey, they were having a hard time out of the canal.) But their well of experience and reading and thinking about the supernatural isn’t much deeper than mine was at their ages, and I would NOT have jumped at this chance if my dad had come up with it. Hell no. I’ve worked it all out since then, so I no longer register more than a distant, limbic twinge at this stuff. Oh yes, still that.
But I’d already handed over my gold nuggets for the rooms, so we were going to be staying at the Jeffery. But to avoid a revolt in the parking lot, I knew I’d have to offer the girls something from my own well.
My biggest breakthrough in thinking about religion was realizing I didn’t have to search for the deity to decide whether I believed; I just had to look at the reasons other people believed and decide whether they were any good. (SPOILER ALERT: Nope.) The same thing works with the paranormal. So before the trip, I showed Erin and Delaney the first two minutes of this video:
“Oh, please!” Laney said when the door opened (1:30). Erin laughed with relief. Now they were dipping into their own wells of experience. Both of them grew up in a 115-year-old Victorian house in Minnesota. Like the Jeffery, none of our door frames were quite squared, and the slightest change of air pressure would cause a door to drift open, even if you couldn’t feel it. The silliness of somebody else’s evidence helped their concerns melt away. “You’re just people like us in the universe” became one of the catch phrases of our trip.
So I thought we were done. Oy, putz!
The last leg of the trip arrived. We drove straight from LA and pulled up in front of the Jeffery, which has a very cool, fairly authentic, unpolished feeling. Gaudy wallpaper, dim lighting. Wood creaks and paint peels. No check-in counter — you get your keys from the bartender at the period saloon downstairs, which was nicely filled with bikers. And upstairs we went.
The doors of unoccupied rooms are left ajar. Of the 22 rooms in the hotel, 22 were ajar. We were the only guests for the night, and we had one room on each of the two floors — at opposite ends. Becca noticed there were no phones. And we hadn’t had cell reception for twenty miles. This was getting good.
And then it got better. Once the saloon emptied out, even the staff left. Locked the door and left. We were now the only people in the building.
Despite all this, and the sun going down, everybody was still fine fine fine…until Becca opened a little black case we’d been given with the key for Room 22. It was a ghost detection kit, with instruments like a “GaussMaster electromagnetic field meter,” a motion detector, and a laser thermometer.
Delaney had been sitting on the bed, reading the instructions, which she slowly lowered into her lap.
“I don’t want to do this.”
All of her earlier fear was right back on her face. It’s easy to dismiss mediums cooing over a door that opens by itself — literally kid’s stuff. But this looked an awful lot like science.
I wasn’t going to force her to do it, of course. But I also thought we should try to defuse her fears before the lights went out.
I picked up the instructions and read. “Hmm. Um hmm. Looks all official and sciencey.” She nodded. “Well there’s a word for that. It’s called pseudoscience. Guess what ‘pseudo’ means.”
“Fake,” I said. “Pseudoscience means fake science. Something pretending to be science that isn’t.”
Now this was interesting. From nothing more than that, she suddenly looked visibly relieved. Not completely, but better. Somehow knowing there was a word for the fakery, a whole category, gave skepticism a form of its own, something she could hold on to.
Of course having this long, fancy word didn’t really confer legitimacy any more than the sciencey words in the instructions did, any more than calling something “transubstantiation” makes it less goofy. But in that moment, having a name for “fake science” helped her see that it might be exactly that.
I read the instructions aloud for one of the gizmos. “‘If the reading is between 0.3 and 0.5, you may be in the presence of a spirit.'” We turned on the meter and pointed it at a corner. The needle went up and down from 0.0 to 0.6. “They said that means there’s a ghost there. How do we know that isn’t the normal variation?” She shrugged. “We don’t. And they know we don’t know that, so they make up numbers to freak us out and sell ghost detection kits.”
Two minutes later, we each had a device and were tiptoeing, Scooby-style, down the intentionally dark hallway, humming scary organ music, pointing at shadows and giggling. We went into dark guest rooms, scanning everything as we went, needles bouncing and lights flashing. By the time we got back to our rooms, they were back to the reaction they’d had to the video of the self-opening door.
The next day we talked about the incentive the Jeffery has to bill itself as haunted — hell, it’s what snared me! — and came up with a few ways they could do it better. I think their skeptical wells are a little fuller for the experience. And it was damn fun.
(If you have a minute, go back and enjoy the video of “orbs” around 4:00.)
When I was 10, my dad tried to show me Comet Kohoutek, which was unfortunately a fizzle, at least where we were. But we saw a lot of other cool things over the years, and he taught me to watch the sky.
My daughter Delaney is now 10, and she’s been a skywatcher from the start. I wanted to show her the last transit of Venus for 105 years, which happened yesterday, but it rained pretty much all day. Which reminded us both of something I told her years ago.
Guillaume Le Gentil was part of one of the most unimaginable scientific undertakings ever. Somebody in the 17th century, I can’t even remember who or how, realized that Venus crosses the disc of the Sun twice, eight years apart, then repeats the pair about 105 years later. Then somebody in the 18th century — Ed Halley, I think it was — figured out that viewing the transit from different parts of the globe, and taking accurate measurements of when Venus enters and exits the disc, and comparing the readings, could help us figure out the distance from Earth to the Sun, which could then be used to figure out every other astronomical distance in the solar system. And that the next opportunity to do this would be in June 1761.
May I just say this about myself. If I’d been sitting in the bar with Halley, and I’d heard this, I would have found it very interesting, then gone back into me pint. “If only this weren’t the bleedin’ 18th century,” I might have funk to meself.
Fortunately, better folks than I were there, and they started chanting the Nike slogan, then made plans to dispatch over 100 observers all around the planet, in the 18th century, to figure out how far away the Sun is.
One of the dispatched was a French astronomer named Guillaume le Gentil, who left Paris a year before the transit and headed for a spot on the southeast coast of India called Pondicherry. He was delayed in landing by an extended naval skirmish, part of the Seven Years’ War. Weeks passed, then Transit Day came and went with le Gentil trapped on a rocking ship, unable to take useful measurements.
Instead of returning home, he decided he might as well hang out until the next transit eight years later, on June 4th, 1769. He killed some time mapping Madagascar, then returned to Pondicherry, built himself a little observatory, and bided his time.
June 4th dawned bright and clear, and le Gentil sat with growing excitement in his observatory, waiting for the transit.
Moments before it began, a cloud rolled over the sun. The view remained obscured for the duration of the transit, then cleared nicely when it was too late. Le Gentil nearly lost his mind. Honestly, who wouldn’t.
Then things got worse. He decided to return home, but first got dysentery and had to miss his ship. He got better, then caught another ship, which wrecked off the coast of Réunion. He made it to shore, then eventually caught a Spanish ship home. He arrived in Paris eleven years after he left, only to learn he’d been declared dead and had lost his coveted seat in the French Academy of Sciences. His wife had remarried — although seriously, can you blame her? — and everything he owned had been sold off.
He essentially sued everyone, got his stuff back, got back into the academy, got him a new wife, and did just fine. But he never saw the transit of Venus. And after about 18 hours of clouds and rain, it looked like we wouldn’t either.
But then, then, just as the transit began yesterday at 6pm, I saw a sudden brightness outside. I jumped up from the dinner table, threw together a pinhole camera and ran out to the front yard with Laney in tow. Sure enough, after about five minutes of focusing and refocusing, Laney and I saw that tiny magic dot and screamed.
We walked back inside. My wife was still there, and no one had eaten my tilapia. In the history of transit-watching, that counts as a win.
I just finished writing a short piece on the ways in which “atheist” and “agnostic” can both describe the same worldview: it is my considered opinion that God does not exist (atheist), and because you can never be quite sure of such a thing, I’m not quite sure (agnostic).
While doing the research, I came across a February interview in which philosopher Anthony Kenny asked Richard Dawkins why, if he admits to being less than certain, he doesn’t call himself an agnostic.
“I do,” he answered.
A planetary gasp ensued. The next morning, the religious affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph wrote breathlessly that Richard Dawkins, “the most famous atheist in the world…admitted he could not be sure God did not exist [and] preferred to call himself an agnostic rather than an atheist.”
Not only has Dawkins said the same thing countless times, including in The God Delusion (p. 74), but he said nothing whatever about preference. Like a Christian who is also Lutheran, he was laying claim to two entirely compatible labels. Russell did warn about putting that kind of nuance in front of a general audience, but oh well. (Dawkins has clarified, for all the good that will do.)
I read about the Dawkins flap the same day I saw a BigThink video by Neil deGrasse Tyson plowing similar ground, though at right angles to Dawkins. For nearly three minutes I was in nodding agreement with Dr. T — then, in the final seconds, he lost altitude rapidly, finally slamming hard into Mt. Misconception. Here it is with my play-by-play:
0:10 Totally cool with that. No one should force anyone else’s hand on this, ever.
0:18 (Okay, that’s unfortunate. Though you have to be careful, belonging to a movement does not have to mean leaving your brain at the door. Was there no one thinking for himself or herself in the civil rights movement? The women’s rights movement?)
0:20-0:45 One of the best descriptions of this problem I’ve heard.
1:17-1:30 This describes me, and almost every atheist I know. Word for word.
1:45- He’s right — this is maddening bullshit. HE gets to choose his identity, no one else. It’s like a believer telling you you’re really a Christian, deep down. Maddening.
2:15 A really clever response to the problem. I would never have thought of that.
2:30- It’s easy to react against what he’s saying here, but listen closely. He’s talking about a pragmatic difference, and he’s right. Calling himself an atheist would be an enormous distraction from his work. Agnostic is also accurate and allows him to focus on his primary work.
2:38-2:48 Listen to the weariness in his voice here. I am completely with him on this.
2:55 Uh oh.
2:58 Oh. No no.
3:01 Oh please don’t do that. Please stay smart.
Picture saying to Gandhi, “Nonviolence? What’s up with that? I don’t play cricket, but is there a word for non cricket players? Do non cricket players go on hunger strikes and allow themselves to be clubbed?” It’s a thoughtless, vacant analogy from a really brilliant guy. Tyson doesn’t have to agree that the act of stepping outside this overwhelming cultural norm is worthy of a name, but to so thoroughly fail to grasp why others might think it is, even to the point of demeaning caricature, is really hard to watch.
3:30 This is an indictment worth hearing. Tyson is not the first accomplished agnostic or atheist to say this kind of thing. It’s worth asking if there’s something we can do as a movement to make it easier for people like Tyson to stand anywhere near us without losing their ability to do their work.
I do wonder if Tyson would so easily shrug the movement away if his own area of science was still under siege by geocentrists. Nowadays it’s mostly biologists struggling to keep religious assumptions out of their work. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that Einstein, Sagan, and Tyson have all shoved the atheist label away with great irritation, while people like Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Jerry Coyne see it as a point worth making, despite the enormous distraction from their other work.
I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.
“Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.
“Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”
Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.
So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.
For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”
I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.
Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.
Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade / You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught!
–from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific (1949)
It’s a riveting horror — no caption required, just the immensely sad, unaware eyes of the younger girl. There’s no reason to believe they’ve embraced the messages on their shirts yet, but every reason to assume their environment is primed to lead them there.
But is it really true that we’ve got to be taught to hate those who are different from us? Answer one way and parents can simply decline to teach them to hate. Answer the other way and there’s something we need to actively do to help them avoid it.
I think we’re more naturally inclined to hate and fear difference than not. Religion isn’t the only parting gift we got from the Paleolithic. A lot of the things we are, including some of our worst pathologies, were once strongly adaptive traits. Evolution just hasn’t had time to catch up to our circumstances. As a result, we’re a whole panel of buttons waiting to be pushed. And one of the best things a parent can do is to help those buttons rust.
Before I get to that, let’s look at more of our inheritance:
GOT TO BE TAUGHT?
A million years ago, food was desperately hard to come by, and cooperation within a small group was advantageous. But cooperating with the group next door would have doubled the mouths to feed without moving the needle much on available food. Genetic tendencies toward in-group cooperation and out-group hostility would have provided a selective advantage, as would distrust of people who dressed, looked, or acted differently from you. The more different they were, the more likely their interests conflicted with yours.
Aggressive nationalism, militarism, racism, and the exaggerated fear of immigrants and of all things foreign are modern expressions of what was once a sensible approach to staying alive. But in an interdependent world, these same characteristics can be downright harmful.
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon a million years ago. Two Homo erectuseses are walking through the high grass on the African savannah. Suddenly there’s movement off to the left. One of them assumes it’s something fun and goes in for a hug. The other jumps 15 feet straight up and grabs a tree limb. Even if it’s just a fluffy bunny nine times out of ten, which of these guys is more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation?
In a world bent on killing you, no characteristic would have been more useful for survival than perpetual, sweaty hypervigilance. We’ve inherited a strong tendency to assume that every shadow and sound is a threat, which in turn kept us alive and reproducing. By the time elevated blood pressure killed you off at 22, you’d already have several jittery, paranoid offspring pounding espressos and cradling stone shotguns all through the long, terrifying night.
Fast forward to a world of 7 billion people in close quarters. Suddenly it’s no longer quite so adaptive to have everybody all edgy and shooty all the time. But our brains don’t know that. One of the resulting paradoxes is that fear often increases as actual danger diminishes. If you can’t see and name it, it must be hiding, you see, which is ever so much worse. Violent crime in the U.S. recently hit the lowest level since records have been kept — in every category — but who’d ever know? Instead, we take every violent news story as proof of the opposite. We insist things are worse than ever in “this day and age,” keep cradling those shotguns…and keep forwarding those urban legends.
(Think for a minute about how 9/11 — a death-dealing sneak attack by the Other — pushed our collective Paleolithic button. It was a massive confirmation of our oldest unarticulated fears, and we dropped to our collective knees.)
I could go on and on. In addition to magical thinking, fear of difference, and hypervigilance, we can add categorical thinking, enforced gender divisions, the love of weapons and authority, and much more, all of which had clear adaptive advantages during the long, dark night of our species. These things are, in a word, natural.
Which is not to say good. Rape is also natural. “From an evolutionary perspective,” says biologist/philosopher David Lahti, “considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it.” Yet it happens, ten thousand times a day, because we’ve developed a frankly unnatural social morality that trumps the natural a gratifyingly high percentage of the time.
Secularism, comfort with difference, a reasonable relaxation of vigilance, the blurring of categories (sex, gender, race, etc), the willingness to disarm ourselves and to challenge authority — these are all unnatural, recent developments, born in fits and starts out of the relative luxury of a post-Paleolithic world. I’m sure you’ll agree that they are also better responses to the world we live in now — at least those of us privileged to live in non-Paleolithic conditions.
Of course our limbic brain differs on that, but it would, wouldn’t it?
Now — the astute reader may have noticed that the things that kept us alive a million years ago line up incredibly well with the nationalistic, anti-immigrant, pro-gun, pro-authority, pro-gender-role, anti-diversity talking points of social conservatives. But if you think my point is to belittle conservatives by calling them cavemen, not so. I think there’s a lot to be gained by recognizing social conservatism, including religious conservatism, as the activation of ancient and natural fears, and to respond accordingly.
My circumstances have allowed my Paleolithic buttons to remain unpushed. That’s why I’m not a social conservative. Growing up, I was made to feel safe. I was not frightened with Satan or hell or made to question my own worth or worthiness. I was given an education, allowed to think freely, encouraged to explore the world around me and to find it wonderful. Unlike the vast majority of the friends I have who are religious conservatives, I never passed through a disempowering life crisis — a hellish divorce, a drug or alcohol spiral, the loss of a child — that may have triggered that feeling of abject helplessness before I had developed my own personal resources. So I never had to retreat into the cave of my innate fears.
In short, I’ve been lucky.
A lot of people with the same luck are religious. But in my experience, those strongly tend toward what Bruce Bawer has called the “church of love” — the tolerant, diverse, justice-oriented side of the religious spectrum, grounded in a more modern perspective but still responding to the human problem that science, admittedly, has only partly solved.
It’s rare for a person with all of the advantages listed above to freely choose the “church of law” — the narrow, hateful, Paleolithic end we rightly oppose. Those folks, one way or another, are generally thrown there, like the girls in the photo. Sometimes they find their way out, but their road is tougher than mine was.
Seeing things this way has made me more empathetic to conservative religious believers, even as I oppose the malign consequences of their beliefs. Understanding our natural inheritance also makes me frankly amazed that we ever do anything right. Given the profound mismatch between what we are and what the world is, we should all have vanished in a smoking heap by now. Instead, we create art and cure disease and write symphonies and figure out the age of the universe and somehow, despite ourselves, hang on to an essentially secular government in a predominantly religious country.
Okay, I just have to stop writing, even though I haven’t reached the punchline — what this all means for parents. So there will be a Part 3.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: After further research and smart reader input, I’ve yanked the section “Every Sperm is Sacred” from this post, which was based on hypotheses that have apparently been superseded. Science marches on!]
It is an interesting and demonstrable fact that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so…[T]here is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal. —ERNESTINE ROSE, “A Defence of Atheism” (1861)
Boy do we secular parents love us a quote like that. It says my atheism is just a return to my natural condition, a rejection of something artificial that had been blown into my head by human culture. Like!
But in the last few years, I’ve come to think of the idea that we are born atheists as a seriously misleading one, and correcting it as Job One for secular parents.
It’s obviously true that we are born without religious belief. But this equates to what is called weak or negative atheism, the simple absence of belief in a god or gods. But what about the other major assertion there — that without inculcation, that absence would remain?
This gets at the very basic question of what religion is. The Rose quote implies that it’s a cultural construction, pure and simple. But if Ernestine Rose was right and atheism is so damn natural, why is the inculcation of religion received so eagerly and pried loose with such difficulty?
I’ve spent years chasing this question through the work of EO Wilson, Pinker, Boyer, Dennett, Diamond, Shermer and more. The result has made me less angry and frustrated and more empathetic toward the religious impulse, even as I continue to find most religious ideas both incorrect and problematic. It has also deeply informed my secular parenting in a very good way. Yet I’ve never expressed it out loud until a few months ago, when I reworked part of my parenting seminar to include it.
Thinking about religion anthropologically has made me a better proponent of my own worldview, a more effective challenger of toxic religious ideas, and a much better secular parent.
Why (the hell) we are the way we are
If you want to understand why we are the way we are, there’s no better place to look than the Paleolithic Era (2.4 million years ago – 11,000 years ago). Over 99.5 percent of the history of the genus Homo — 120,000 generations — took place during the Paleolithic. For the last 10,000 of those generations, we were anatomically modern. Same body, same brain. The brain you are carrying around in your head was evolved in response to conditions in that era, not this one. The mere 500 generations that have passed since the Paleolithic ended represent a virtual goose egg in evolutionary time.
To put it simply: we are born in the Stone Age. Childhood is a period during which we are brought — by parenting, experience, and education — into the modern world. Or not.
So if we were evolved for the Paleolithic, it seems worth asking: What was it like then? In short, it sucked to be us.
In the Lower Paleolithic, starting around 2.4 million years ago, there were an estimated 26,000 hominids on Earth. The climate was affected by frequent glacial periods that would lock up global water, leading to severe arid conditions in the temperate zones and scarce plant and animal life, making food hard to come by.
The average hominid life span was about 20 years. We lived in small bands competing for negligible resources. For two million years, our genus was balancing on the edge of extinction.
Then it got worse.
About 77,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, (apparently created by a seven-year-old boy), this eruption was a “mega-colossal” — the highest category. Earth was plunged into a volcanic winter lasting at least a decade. The human population dropped to an estimated 5,000 individuals, each living a terrifying, marginal existence.
Now remember that these humans had the same thirsty and capable brain you and I enjoy, but few reliable methods for filling it up. The most common cause of death was infectious disease. If someone is gored by a mammoth, you can figure out how to avoid that in the future. But most people died for no apparent reason. Just broke out in bloody boils, then keeled over dead.
Imagine how terrifying such a world would be to a mind fully capable of comprehending the situation but utterly lacking in answers, and worse yet, lacking the ability to control it. It’s not hard to picture the human mind simply rebelling against that reality, declaring it unacceptable, and creating an alternate reality in its place, neatly packaged for the grateful relief of subsequent generations.
The first evidence of supernatural religion appears 130,000 years ago.
Religion solves our central problem: that we are human (to quote Jennifer Hecht), and the universe is not. It’s not really about explanation or even comfort, not exactly. It’s about seizing control, or at least imagining we have. To be fully conscious of our frailty and mortality in a hostile and indifferent universe and powerless to do anything about it would have been simply unacceptable to the human mind. So we created powerful beings whom we could ultimately control — through prayer, sacrifice, behavior changes, ritual, spinning around three times, what have you.
Conservative, traditional religion is a natural response to being human in the Paleolithic. Whether it was a good response or not is beside the point — it was the only one we had.
But we’re not in the Paleolithic anymore, you say. You certainly have the calendar on your side. We began to climb out of our situation about 500 generations ago when agriculture made it possible to stand still and live a little longer. Eventually we had the time and security to develop better responses to the problem, better ways of interrogating and controlling the world around us. But the Scientific Revolution, our biggest step forward in that journey, was just 20 generations ago. Think of that. It just happened. Our species is still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of 120,000 generations in hell. And like the battle veteran who hits the dirt when he hears a backfiring car, it takes very little to push the Paleolithic button in our heads.
Yes, your kids are born without religious belief. But they are also born with the problem of being human, which includes a strong tendency to hit the dirt when the universe backfires. One of the best things a secular parent can do is know that the Paleolithic button is there so we can help our kids resist the deeply natural urge to push it.