Evolution Weekend Readings

For tonight’s study.  Feel free to answer in the comments.

Why is there variety among living things?

(nineteenth century C.E.)

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species — that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.
. . . .
No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us. Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world. Still less do we know of the mutual relations of the innumerable inhabitants of the world during the many past geological epochs in its history. Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgement of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained — namely, that each species has been independently created — is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

* * * *
(first century B.C.E.)

The whole of life but labors in the dark.
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only Nature’s aspect and her law. 
. . . .
You must not think
That all things can combine in every way,
Every conceivable pattern, for, if so,
You’d see such freaks as men-half-beasts, and boughs,
Instead of arms and legs, coming from torsos.
You’d see marine-terrestrial animals,
Chimaeras, for example, breathing fire
Out of their ugly faces, browsing over
All-mothering earth; but it is plain as day
This does not happen., since we see all things
Maintain the proper order of their kind,
Same kind of parenthood, same kind of seed
Definite causes, definite effects,
A fixed, assured procedure. In all things
The sustenance they take pervades the limbs,
The particles of nourishment combine
To set those limbs in motion. We can see
The opposite of this process also,–nature
Often casts out improper elements,
Rejects them; many elements are driven
Outward as if by blows, they cannot join
Within this frame, or that, can neither feel
Nor even feign the attributes of life.
Not only animals obey these laws,
The code applies to everything As all
Are different, so, in their origin/
They must derive from different shapes.
Of course I do not say that nothing ever looks
Like anything else, but that in general
Species are different, from different seed,
With different intervals, junctions, ways–weight, force,
Motion, and so on. Not animals alone
Are separate and distinct, one from the other,
But also land and sea, heaven and earth.

* * * *
(sixth century B.C.)

  In the beginning the Elohim made the sky and the earth, but the earth was shapeless and everything was dark. The Elohim said “Let there be light,” and there was the light that made day different from night. And that was the first day.
      The Elohim said, “Let there be a dome to separate the heavens from the waters below,” and there were the heavens. And that was the second day.
      The Elohim said, “Let the waters of the earth gather so that there are seas and there is dry land,” and so it was. The Elohim said, “Let there be vegetation on the land, with plants to yield seeds and fruits,” and so it was. And that was the third day.
      The Elohim said, “Let there be light in the heavens, and let them change with the seasons,” and so there were stars. Then the Elohim made a sun and a moon to rule over the day and to rule over the night. And that was the fourth day.
      The Elohim said, “Let there be creatures in the waters, and let there be birds in the skies,” and so there were sea monsters and sea creatures and birds. The Elohim blessed them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply”. And that was the fifth day.
      The Elohim said, “Let the earth have animals of various kinds”, and so it was. Then the Elohim said, “Let us make humans after our own likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the cattle and creeping things of the land, and over all the earth.” The Elohim said to these humans, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, ruling over the fish and the birds and the animals of the land. We have given you every plant and tree yielding seed. To every beast and bird of the Earth we have given every green plant for food.” And that was the sixth day.
      And on the seventh day the making of the heavens and earth was finished, and the Elohim rested.

* * * *
(tenth century B.C.E.)

    On the day that Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, the land was dry and barren until a mist came up from the earth and wetted the land. Then Yahweh took dust from the earth and shaped it into the form of a man, and he breathed life into that form, and it came to life.
      Yahweh created a garden in a place called Eden. In this garden Yahweh placed all the trees that bear fruit, including the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden and watered the garden, and there it divided to become four rivers that flow to the four corners of the world. Yahweh put the man there and instructed him to cultivate the garden and to eat of whatever fruit he liked, except for fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
      Then Yahweh decided that the man should not be alone, and that he should have a helper. Thus Yahweh made the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and the man gave a name to each of them. However, none were fit to be his helper, so Yahweh made the man fall into a deep sleep and took one of the man’s ribs, and he made it into a woman. This man was Adam, and the woman’s name was Eve.
      In the garden was a snake, and the snake persuaded the woman that she could eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil without dying, and that eating the fruit would give her Yahweh’s knowledge of good and evil. She ate the fruit, and she gave some to the man too. For the first time they were ashamed of being naked, and so they made aprons for themselves.
      When the man and woman heard Yahweh in the garden, they hid from him, but Yahweh called them out and asked why they had hidden. The man explained that they hid because of their scanty clothing. Yahweh asked the man how they knew to be ashamed of nudity, and if they had eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The man explained that the woman had eaten of the fruit and given him some too. When Yahweh asked the woman, she explained that the snake had beguiled her into eating the fruit.
      Yahweh said to the snake, “Because of what you have done, you are cursed more than any other animal, and you will have to crawl on your belly in the dust, and you will be beaten by the offspring of this woman”. To the woman Yahweh said, “You will be cursed with great pain in giving birth to children, yet you will have the desire to reproduce, and your husband will rule you.” Finally, to the man Yahweh said, “Because of what you have done, the ground is cursed and you will never eat of this fruit again. You will grow plants and fields and eat bread until you die, until you become the dust from which you were made.”
      Then Yahweh said, “This man has become like us, knowing good and evil – next he will seek the tree of life and try to live forever.” Therefore Yahweh made the man and woman clothing and drove them out of the Garden of Eden, and he placed a winged half-human, half-lion creature at the Garden’s gate to keep them out.


I think the following passage from Book 2, Chapter 2 of the Bros. K, is a decent response to the question why walk in the Way.  Whether the Way is that described by Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed.  Or whether the Way is a meaningful, rich existence available to the secular humanist.

The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a
pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him,
and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no
respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself
without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and
sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other
men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily
offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take
offence, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but
that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and
exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a
mountain out of a molehill- he knows that himself, yet he will be
the first to take offence, and will revel in his resentment till he
feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. But
get up, sit down, I beg you. All this, too, is deceitful



Predestiny and Predisposition

Oedipus Rex explores man’s inability to run from his destiny.

Oedipus, his parents, and a few other people became aware that something unthinkable is going to happen. I focus on the sexual component because it seems that Oedipus was not particularly traumatized my coming across some folks on the highway and killing them. Perhaps the Thebes-Corinth corridor observed a version of the stand your ground law. Also, frankly, it is not hard to imagine a circumstance that leads to a father killing a son, particularly in the king-crown prince dynamic.

Also, Sophocles devotes some significant energy to describing Oedipus’ sexual perversion in new and different ways.

He sowed the same womb as his father . . . Time, which watches everything and uncovered you against your will, now sits in judgment of that fatal marriage, where child and parent have been joined so long. . . . She lay moaning by the bed, where she, poor woman, had given birth twice over—a husband from a husband, children from a child. . . . As he moved, he kept asking us to give him a sword, as he tried to find that wife who was no wife—whose mother’s womb had given birth to him and to his children.

The play ends with Oedipus mutilating himself and his mother/wife killing herself.

Uplifting I know. I can’t help but be reminded of the torment we inflict on the gay community by insisting that they deny their sexuality. Running from one’s destiny, Sophocles teaches, leads to suffering.

I wonder if it matters whether one considers something to be a predestiny rather than a predisposition. I wonder whether my heterosexual orientation and cisgender is destiny or disposition.


Suffering of Your Enemy

After Achilles has killed Hector, Homer takes us to Hector’s widow in the walls of Troy.

Hector’s wife had as yet heard nothing, for no one had come to tell her that her husband had remained without the gates. She was at her loom in an inner part of the house, weaving a double purple web, and embroidering it with many flowers. She told her maids to set a large tripod on the fire, so as to have a warm bath ready for Hector when he came out of battle; poor woman, she knew not that he was now beyond the reach of baths, and that Minerva had laid him low by the hands of Achilles.

To twist the knife a bit, Homer turns to Hector’s now fatherless son.

The day that robs a child of his parents severs him from his own kind; his head is bowed, his cheeks are wet with tears, and he will go about destitute among the friends of his father, plucking one by the cloak and another by the shirt. Some one or other of these may so far pity him as to hold the cup for a moment towards him and let him moisten his lips, but he must not drink enough to wet the roof of his mouth; then one whose parents are alive will drive him from the table with blows and angry words. ‘Out with you,’ he will say, ‘you have no father here,’ and the child will go crying back to his widowed mother.’

[Aside: The anger directed toward a weeping child reminded me of the pain of leaving for deployment. A socially awkward, emotionally stunted department head’s son came crying after him on the day of leaving for deployment. The man shouted to his son, “Get back in the house or I will beat your butt.”]

The closing line of Book 22 refers again to the widow, “In such wise did she cry aloud amid her tears, and the women joined in her lament.” This whole passage reminds me of the Biblical story of Deborah. Deborah’s general Barak, no relation, crushes the enemy army led by Sisera. Sisera runs away and seeks shelter to Jael. Jael, in another exercise of girl power, kills Sisera while he sleeps by driving a tent stake through his temple. The song of Deborah closes with this passage:

28 “Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;
behind the lattice she cried out,
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’
29 The wisest of her ladies answer her;
indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
30 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
a woman or two for each man,
colorful garments as plunder for Sisera,
colorful garments embroidered,
highly embroidered garments for my neck—
all this as plunder?’

Judges 5:28-30. I have often wondered what to make of this passage from the song of Deborah, which is one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible. Are the Hebrews invoking sympathy for their enemies? Is Homer? The fact is, Homer treats Hector with much more respect than the Hebrews treated any Hebrew enemy. It makes me feel sympathy for the enemy, but is that the purpose? Or is the purpose to say to the People not only did we kill the enemy, we humiliated him and we made his women and children back home weep for him? Is this the beginnings of moving beyond tribalism, or is this dancing on the grave of the vanquished?


Zeus Is Kind of a Jerk

So, Book XIV of the Iliad is really just full of all kinds of terrible stuff from a feminist critique perspective. A major thrust of the passage is that Hera, Zeus’s sister-wife, decides to sleep with him so that while he is “spent” the god Sleep will put Zeus out for a while to give the Achaeans a chance to come back in the their battle against Troy.

Now, sprinkled throughout the book is awfulness like Hera offering a women to Sleep as a prize to convince Sleep to go along with the project. Also, Hera tricks Aphrodite into giving her some potion type thing to make her more attractive to Zeus. So, women are things to be exchanged for favors, although powerful women can use trickery and sex to manipulate powerful men. Lovely.

Check out Zeus’s response to Hera, did I mention she is his sister, getting him all hot & bothered.

Cloud-gatherer Zeus then answered:

you can go there later. But why don’t we
lie down and make joyful love together?
I’ve never felt such sexual desire before
for any goddess, for any mortal woman.
It’s flooding through me, overpowering the heart
here in my chest—not even when I lusted for
Ixion’s wife, who bore me Peirithoös,
a man as wise as gods, or Danaë,
with her enchanting ankles, daughter
of Acrisius, who gave birth to Perseus,
most illustrious of men, nor the daughter
of famous Phoenix, who bore me Minos
and godlike Rhadamanthus, nor Alcmene,
who gave birth to Hercules in Thebes,
a mighty hearted son, nor Semele,
who bore that joy to mortals Dionysus,
nor fair-haired lady Demeter, nor Leto,
that glorious girl, not even for yourself—
I felt for none of these the love I feel
for you right now—such sweet desire grips me.”

Nice. You’re way hotter than all of the other ladies I’ve nailed before. Let me list them. I would think this was more bizarre if I did not have friend who had a similar experience. For her, it was with her first sexual partner. His post coitus reflections included wondering outloud how many women he had deflowered in this very bed. I’ll have to check in with her and determine if this dude was a classics major.

Not that it is new information for anyone, but it appears the ancient Hebrews did not have a monopoly on misogyny. Although, I suppose the stories of Ruth and Esther are not entirely devoid of a heroine using her womanly charms on a man to get what she wants. At least they have the decency to use a euphemism or two.


The Illiad and Independent Expenditures

So, Zeus was a fan of the Acheans, but especially Achilles. Since Achilles was mad at Agamemnon for taking from Achilles the woman he had captured as his slave, Zeus was helping the Trojans win battles against the Acheans, led by Agamemnon. Posiedon, on the other hand, couldn’t stand to watch the Acheans get slaughter, but because Zeus had commanded that there be no interference, he could not coordinate with the Acheans openly. Put another way:

Then two mighty sons of Cronos, at cross purposes,
made painful trouble for those mortal warriors.
Zeus wanted victory for Hector and his Trojans,
to give swift Achilles glory—not that he wished
Achaea’s army to be totally destroyed
in front of Troy, but he did want to honour Thetis,
and her great-hearted son, as well, Achilles.
But Poseidon moved around among the Argives,
urging action, coming out in secret from the sea,
angry that Trojans were destroying Achaeans,
and incensed at Zeus. Both gods had a common father—
the same family, too—but Zeus was older and more wise.
So Poseidon avoided giving any overt help.
He did his work in secret through the army,
in human form, rousing men to fight. So these two
looped the cords of powerful war and deadly strife
around both contending armies, then pulled them taut,
a knot no one could undo or slip away from,
a knot that broke the limbs of many fighting men.

The Illiad, Book XIII.

As a campaign finance lawyer, this strikes me as similar to our current system for funding campaigns. The “sons of Cronos” in the political arena would be well funded corporations, labor organizations, and ideological political organizations. By removing any regulations associated with independent expenditures, we’ve created a peculiar environment where the vast majority of money spent directly advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate will be spent by groups who by law cannot coordinate with the candidate himself or herself. These groups can obviously have as complex and seemingly contradictory motivations as Zeus did in wanting the Acheans to win, but only if with Achilles.

Of course, if one is interested in influencing the political landscape, I suppose working within one of these sons of Cronos would not be a bad idea.


The Illiad & Me.


Adam Smith, Really?

So, I’ve just started Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations when I come to this at the end of the first chapter.

yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute masters of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

Book I, Ch. I. To be sure, there is plenty of careful economic analysis–specifically the division of labor–and there is the beginnings of the idea that economic advances happen as a result of everyone looking out for their own self interest. But this little gem caught my attention.

I think it is worth recognizing the brutal racism toward African nations. Locke had this, too. Although, with Locke it was more about the American Indian nations. It doesn’t necessarily discount his analysis, but I think it should be in the back of ones mind while reading these authors.

I think it is also worth noting the underlying assumption about productivity necessarily improving ones life. Surely one would rather be “absolute master” of “ten thousand nake savages” then a peasant wearing a jacket that much division of labor went into creating. Again, not to say that Smith’s observations should be disregarded, but I do think it is worthwhile to keep his biases in mind. Curiously, he later writes, “Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life.” Book I, Ch. V. Does this contradict his observation about the “savages”?

Is the ability to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life of those in what Smith calls civilised, but what we call industrialized, nations always greater than those in less industrialized nations? Was it in Adam Smith’s time?


One Sentence: Three Points

The Jews of Palestine, who had fondly expected a temporal deliverer, gave so cold a reception to the miracles of the divine prophet, that it was found unnecessary to publish, or at least to preserve, any Hebrew gospel. Edward Gibbon, Ch. 15, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (circa 1776).

(Emphasis added)(Footnote omitted).

Palestine: I have heard from extreme supporters of Israel that there is no such place as Palestine, like it is some sort of a made up term. It struck me to see something that was written before the United States was a country use the term. I wonder on what the no-such-thing-as-Palestine movement bases its claim.

so cold a reception : For such a careful historian, it is shocking that Gibbon so completely subcumbs to the narrative of his culture. Cold reception? Every follower of Jesus in the Bible is a Jew. Paul may have not been considered a Palestinian, but he was ceratinly a Jew. It is kind of obnoxious to read that the people who are responsible for the entire Christian movement be brushed aside.

Hebrew gospel: Gibbon adds a note that some say Matthew was written in Hebrew, but the evidence suggests otherwise, hence the hedging with “or at least preserve.” Now we know that none of the Gospels were written contemporaneously with the life of Jesus and none in Hebrew. The Q source was also written in Greek.

Is it significant that the Gospels were not written until after Paul’s letter and they were written in the common language–Greek–rather than the language of the Jewish people?

Matthew and Luke were both written after the fall of Jerusalem, but I think both Mark and the Q were written before. Does that matter?


LDS Church: the perfect Evangelist Church?

According to Gibbon, the spread of Christianity within the Roman Empire was

assisted by the five following causes: I. The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. II. The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth. III. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians. V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.

It occurs to me that the division of Christianity that most emulates these qualities today is the LDS Church, which just happens to also be one of the fastest growing churches in the nation.

My thoughts are based on my interactions with members of the LDS church rather than an academic study into the topic. For that reason I hope that members of the church will provide their thoughts in the comment section below. Anonymous posting is fine, as always.

Cause I: Exclusive zeal and abhorrence for idolatry. In my last post, I characterized this as being a spritual separatist, but today I am reading this as strictly adhering to one’s belief in the public sphere. My friends who are Mormon would not, for example, go see rated R movies. They would politely decline an offer of alcohol or cafeinated beverage. It is clear that Mormonism transforms one and causes one to be in the world but not of it.

Casuse II: Certainty of Life After. I was discussing theology with a Mormon friend and explained that my church did not tell people what to believe but suggested that they seek their own truth in Scripture. She said, “That’s because your church doesn’t know for sure, right?” She was right. I think absolute conviction about afterlife, and prelife, is a quality to fairly attribute to LDS members.

Cause III: Miracles. The truth is that my recent interactions with friends in the LDS church have not addressed healing ceremonies. Although, growing up in Indiana I was riding with a father and son who were both active in the local LDS church and they talked about the power of healing ceremonies. I am not sure if physical healing brought on by Mormon Elders goes on today much.

Cause IV: Being Good People. Frankly, this is what I think is the biggest distinction between devout Mormons and devout Christian Fundamentalists. Many fundamentalists are super nice people, obviously, but there are a good number who are vicious in the judgmentalism. The first word that anyone uses to describe Mormons as a group is how friendly and kind they are.

Cause V: United & Disciplined. As a person who thrives on curiousity, I see the uniformity of theology expressed by members of the LDS church to be a drawback. But, that’s for me personally. I don’t think one could deny that the Mormon Church puts forward a united front on matters theological and social.

Is this a fair assessment of the characteristics of the LDS Church? Does it make sense that these same causes were present in the early church movement which spread through the ancient super power that was Rome? Should other movements consider emulating these characteristics?