The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

The eclipse of Darwinism

I’ve always known evolution underwent a barrage of criticism between 1859 and the 1930s — after the Origin was published and before the modern synthesis with genetics clinched the deal.

What I didn’t know until now is just how bad it got.

Julian Huxley described the decades prior to the modern synthesis as “the eclipse of Darwinism.” Support for the theory actually dwindled over time, with ever more biologists feeling it was inadequate to explain all the evidence. Probably didn’t help that Darwin kept putting out ever-weaker new editions as he bent over backwards to answer concerns without access to the evidence that would eventually clinch the deal. For a while, it was plausible that the theory would be completely thrown over.

Then the modern synthesis kicks in, and everything snaps into place. It’s an even better story than I thought of the way science works.

Second quarter deadline Monday. This one’s down to the wire.

Q: Joining the parrot

I won’t be working on the section on death for a few weeks yet, but it’s time to start mining your heads.

My feeling about death is pretty straightforward: I’m opposed to it. I’ve pretty much mastered it intellectually, but emotionally I’m still not a fan. Natural selection will keep me at least somewhat skittish until I get there, at which point I’ll relax completely. Engaging the insights of my fellow bits of temporarily animated carbon has helped put it in perspective for me, even bringing out the beauty and poetry of it.

So…

Q: What ideas or ways of thinking about death have been interesting, thought-provoking, intriguing, helpful, and/or comforting to you?

Note that comfort is just one element here. As I wrote in Raising Freethinkers, “The most significant and profound thing about our existence is that it ends, rivaled only by the fact that it begins.” So tell me the best things you’ve thought about that profound fact, ya mortals.

(Ding.)

You wannit fast or good?

I seem to have a choice each day: I can write fast or well. But the publisher wants both.

Yesterday I wrote fast. Today I wrote well. Maybe that adds up to a good book delivered on time. Dunno.

Onward!

The cover image

(Cheated on this post — five min a day for three days.)

When it came to designing the cover of Atheism for Dummies, the publisher did something unusual — they asked for my opinion.

This is not normal. Usually a marketing committee chooses the title and a design committee creates the cover. I was so nervous about the hundreds of bad possibilities for the title of Parenting Beyond Belief that I brainstormed and offered a title unasked. To my relief, they accepted it. I didn’t see the cover until it appeared on Amazon. After enjoying a mild coronary, I realized it was flippin’ brilliant.

This time, though, I was asked for input. Once my wife scraped me off the floor with a squeegee, I got to work thinking about it.

In a way, the only thing that matters about a Dummies book cover is the yellow and black color scheme. You can spot that sucker through fog. But it also has a single image.

I scanned the covers of the top 100 atheism books on Amazon for ideas. The most common is a solid color with text. Also popular are question marks, Earth/space, sciencey atoms, some kind of religious negation (a cross with an X, etc) , a Promethean torch, or a variation on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam that I call “Adam Reaches for Bupkes.”

I thought about it for days, gradually making a list of ideal attributes:

– Embodies natural worldview
– Represents desire to understand world
– No religious negation
– Directly accessible/relatable (no galaxies or atoms)
– Wonder-inducing
– Aesthetically pleasing
– Not typical. Provokes thought/question. OK if connection not obvious
– Owns the illusion of design

I’d just finished researching the section on the illusion of design in nature, so that last one was floating at the noggin top. And that clinched it — I knew what the image had to be. It fits every requirement on the list.

GUESS FIRST if you want, then click to view the draft cover. Spoilers in the comments are OK, just don’t look there before you click.

No atheist Vatican

Finally finished Chapter 3, one of the hardest in the book. I’m deep fried.

This chapter (on what atheists believe and don’t believe, and why) brought out an interesting diff between my book and religious books in the series, especially Catholicism for Dummies, of which I have a copy for formal comparisons.

Inside the cover of CFD are some guarantees I can’t give my own readers:

The authors of CFD are able to assure readers that they’ve represented a body of settled doctrine accurately. But there is no settled doctrine for atheists. At best, I try to represent the range of ideas and approaches around any given issue. If there’s an apparent consensus, I try to capture that.

I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course — but it does make for a very different and much more challenging (IIDSSM) process than the good Revs were up against. Ding.

Well that was unpleasant

So much for tailwinds. Two bad writing days in a row. I’m writing, just not well, so there’s also a lot of paragraphic euthanasia going on. As a result, I’m now 2K off pace and grumpy.

I have to remember that I can’t write on the same topic, even a really good one, for five straight days. I use up that brain slice, and everything starts sounding Kardashian. So new topic tomorrow, dunno which one, and I’ll finish this long chapter later.

Oooh, is that a tailwind?

I’m three days into the chapter on what atheists tend to believe, and what they tend not to believe, and why.

I was worried about this one in deadline terms for three reasons:

• It’s not as cut and dried as the history and works section
• For reasons I won’t bore you with, I have just 3 weeks this finish this 25% of the book, not 5
• 3 < 5 But ooh! To my surprise, I've caught me a tailwind. This chapter is flying off the fingers, 2K a day without breaking a sweat, and I finish each day with enough energy to grouse about how hard my day was.

I think I know why it’s going well: I had to double-check every date and name and fact in the history section, while this part is basically blogging — expressing what are hopefully educated opinions on things I’ve thought about, read about, and written about for years.

It was also a challenge to make some parts of the history engaging, but this actually DING!

Writing the right book

One of the unique challenges of this book is the constant need to remind myself of the book’s mandate — to introduce atheism to a mostly non-atheist readership that’s unfamiliar but interested.

There are other audiences, including atheists who want to know more about their own worldview. But I can’t really write for them/you. The book will be a better contribution (and fulfill the contract) if I write for the interested layperson outsider and allow the secondary audiences to peek over their shoulders.

This was easy in the history section, but I’m running into sentence by sentence challenges in the current section — why atheists are atheists.

Though the book might convince someone to rethink their own perspective, it’s essential that I not write for that purpose. I’m describing a process others have been through without necessarily requiring the reader to (DING!) stare into the mirror.

But there’s the problem, you see. For many atheists, part of the process involves the growing realization that many religious beliefs are not only false but dishonest and harmful. If I pretend otherwise, I haven’t really described the reality of it. I need to capture that without making the reader feel besieged, to allow them to keep reading, keep reading.

I actually have a lot of practice at this, but it’s slow going, and the next quarter deadline (Sept 3) doesn’t seem to give a damn. And ignoring my timer while blogging doesn’t help one bit.

Q: Mad at God, are ya?

We all have reasons for coming to nontheistic conclusions. But there’s no shortage of theories from non-atheists about why we are really atheists.

Q: What are some of the myths you’ve heard about why atheists are atheists?

Short replies are smiled upon — only because of my current time crunch, not because you aren’t interesting. No no, really, you’re a great person. It’s not you, it’s me.

The end of history

Okay, I’m ready to be done with the historical bits. I love it, but I’m ready to get to the here and now, the big questions.

Had the pleasure of dancing with some of my faves here in the home stretch — Lucretius, Ingersoll, Russell. If you’ve read The Swerve, you know why I heart Lucretius. Unbelievable story of the rediscovery and dissemination of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), one of the most influential books in history. I’ll tell you later.

Imagine living in a time when so much is yet to be learned that you can write a book that’s essentially titled What Stuff is Like.

Monday’s Deadline #1, the first 25% (38,000 words) due. Currently just over 35K. I hate writing by weight.

Ding!