Allies, Altruism, Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Community, Competence, Competition, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Evolution, Fairness, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Ideas, Justice, Life, Memes, Morality, Morals, Nature, Obligations to Society, Quality of Life, Science, Society, Values

Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider

(About a 6 minute read)

The spider had been stalking the fly for minutes.  There didn’t seem to be anything on the barren patch of ground to attract a fly.  I expected it to finish its investigations and leave.  But it would only buzz away a few inches when the spider approached it, then in a minute or two return.

Sometimes it would allow the spider to get very close before flying off.

Continue reading “Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider”

Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Biology, Creative Thinking, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Feminism, Genetics, Human Nature, Ideologies, Life, Morality, Science, Talents and Skills, Teresums

How the Internet Changed My View of Human Nature

(About a 7 minute read)

Back when I was in high school, I read B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, and was quickly converted to philosophical behaviorism — the deterministic notion that our behavior is solely decided by all that we learn from the moment of our birth onward.

There is no room in behaviorism for the notion of free will, but neither is there room for the notion that we might have an universal human nature rooted in our genes — or even a genetically based individual nature also rooted in our genes.

So by the time I got to university I was ripe to discover that all ideas were inventions. That each idea had a history, and that there was a time before it had been cooked up by someone, and then spread to other people.

Continue reading “How the Internet Changed My View of Human Nature”

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Community, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Democracy, Equality, Freedom, Freedom and Liberty, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Oppression, Political Ideologies, Politician, Politicians and Scoundrels, Quality of Life, Religion, Society

How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists

(About a 7 minute read)

Three days ago, I posted on how the division of societies into elites and non-elites was a relatively new thing in human history that began as recently as 5,500 years ago on the plains of Sumer.

Before that, our ancestors had lived in small hunting/gathering groups, and were fiercely jealous of their freedoms — so jealous that they resented and opposed any attempts by someone, or some group, to rise up above the others. In short, they were non-elitists, egalitarians. You can find that post here.

My post prompted the astute Sha’Tara to observe that there must have been some reason why the ancient Sumerians suddenly (in historical terms) decided to surrender their freedoms to a small group of elites, despite their egalitarian instincts and customs. That is an excellent question, a question I hope to address in this post.

Continue reading “How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists”

Allies, Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Belief, Competence, Education, Epistemology, Honesty, Human Nature, Ideologies, Intellectual Honesty, Intelligence, Knowledge, Learning, Liars Lies and Lying, Logic, Obligations to Society, People, Political Ideologies, Psychology, Reason, Scientific Method(s), Teacher, Teaching, Thinking, Truth, Values, Village Idiots

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Deity, Evolution, Genetics, God, God(s), Human Nature, Ideologies, Late Night Thoughts, Myth, Neuroscience, Psychology, Religion, Science

Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man.  I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves.  Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself.  And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.

I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.

I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things.  I agree with those folks who say he was speculating.  Yet, his notion can seem plausible.  And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on.  So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.

Basically, his notion goes like this:  Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder.  In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied.  Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love.  And so forth.

Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things.  Of course that hasn’t happened.

A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with.  But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods.  I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.


Recommended Readings:

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Evolution, Extended Family, Family, Genetics, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Marriage, Nuclear Family, Psychology, Relationships, Sexuality, Society

Traditional Marriage, Circa: Stone Age.

In many small-scale societies, there’s an institution that looks like marriage, where people “pair bond,” but there’s philandering on the side by both men and women. They’ll often just cycle to another pair bond. It’s not uncommon for hunter gatherers to have three, four or five pair bonds in the course of their life, while getting children from each one.

Joseph Henrich

So far as I know, our species of human has been around for about 260,000 years.  According to several scientists, it’s a reasonable guess that, for most of that time, we lived as hunter/gatherers and had marriages that resembled those Henrich describes as common in small-scaled societies today.

It also seems a reasonable guess that people in our ancestral societies most often married for romantic love.  Hunter/gatherers tend to have very few possessions, so marrying someone for their goods is a relatively bad idea.  People might have married to create alliances between families and groups, but hunting/gathering marriages tend to be comparatively short lived — so marrying to create alliances between groups might not always be an especially attractive idea.   And humans seem emotionally tailored by evolution for romantic love.  For those and other reasons, I think it’s safe to say our ancestors most often married for love.

I suspect that was not only the traditional pattern of marriage in our own species of human, but also the traditional pattern of marriage in our precursor species.  In other words, when we think of traditional marriages — the kind of marriages we would have if left to nature — we should think of folks most often marrying for love, now and then screwing around on each other, and eventually traveling on to a new wife or husband.   All within the context of having kids who would — to a large degree — be raised with help from the entire band.

In my opinion, marriages were very unlikely to differ from that model until about 10,000 years ago, with the beginnings of agriculture.   Once you start growing crops, owning the cropland is not far behind.  And once you have landowners — and inheritances — then you have all sorts of pressure to marry for possessions, or for alliances, and not necessarily for love.  You also have extraordinary pressure to stay married at almost all cost.  And you now have agricultural surpluses that can support extra wives.  The extended family becomes more important than the band, but the nuclear family — a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution — is still more than 9,000 years in the future.

Anyway, just some Sunday morning thoughts on traditional marriages.

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Biology, Evolution, Faith, God(s), Ideologies, News and Current Events, Religion, Science

What Is This Guy Up To?

Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

Sigmund Freud

All religions, with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.

Mikhail Bakunin

If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.

Roger Trigg

It seems Roger Trigg wants you to believe some things about human religiosity.  Only one of those things is that opposing religion is bad because it deprives people of the ability to “fulfill their basic interests“.  Apparently, he also wants you to believe:

But, perhaps most of all, Roger Trigg wants you to believe that a recent series of 40 different studies conducted in association with the University of Oxford support his convictions.  Trigg is the Co-Director of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, which is the outfit that conducted the 40 studies.  The Project’s other Co-Director is Justin Barrett.

Trig and Barrett quite recently released to a very select three or four journalists the merest whiff of concrete information about their Project’s findings.  And it now appears that whiff of information was simply an excuse — a mere vehicle — to allow the two of them (but especially Trigg) to place a spin on the Project’s findings well before the findings themselves are to be released. So, I would like to take a much closer look at Trigg’s claims.

Let’s begin by looking first at his notion that, “If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.”  Is Trigg trying to suggest it is somehow wrong to oppose religion?  I suspect he is.

If so, Trigg’s argument is probably a variation of the naturalistic fallacy.  But merely because some trait is deep-rooted in human nature does not make it right, or all wars — without exception — would be right because war is obviously deeply rooted in human nature.  Again, rape occurs in all known societies and in all periods of recorded history.  It is as obviously deeply rooted in human nature as war.  But does that mean thwarting rape is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests — and therefore wrong to do?

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised anyone would ever argue that opposing religion was wrong simply because religion is deeply rooted in human nature.

Again, we have Trigg’s notion that, “…attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived….”  If Trigg means to suggest that people should not oppose religion merely because such efforts will prove to be largely futile, then he is on shaky ground for at least two reasons.

First, there are all sorts of things people oppose even though their efforts are some extent — or even largely — futile.  People routinely oppose robberies, murders, and political corruption even though their efforts are to varying degrees unsuccessful.  Should they cease to do so?

Second, the prevalence of religion varies from one place and time to another.  Some countries, such as Norway, are significantly less religious than other countries, such as the US.  And Norway was once more religious than it is today.  Both those facts suggest there might be practical means of reducing human religiosity.

Last, we have Trigg’s point that, “…human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods…”.  But does that provide adequate grounds for not opposing religion?

I’m pretty sure it does not.  Human thought also seems to be rooted in a number of various cognitive biases.  Does the fact human thought is rooted in a number of cognitive biases mean that we should not oppose them?  It seems Trigg might might once again be falling victim to the naturalistic fallacy.

I think it is safe to say that, to the extent Trigg’s comments can be taken as arguments against opposing religion, they fail.

Unfortunately, I think Trigg intends more by his comments than merely to argue it is somehow wrong to oppose religion.  He also seems to be making at least two more points — and getting these points across might be his real agenda.  First, that we humans have an innate predisposition to belief or faith in deity.   Second, that today’s dominant forms of human religiosity are the natural or default forms of human religiosity.  Assuming Trigg is indeed trying to assert those claims, I believe he is factually wrong about both of them.

That is, I do not think it is the case that belief in god is natural nor the case that today’s religions are natural.

So far as I understand it, scientists nowadays generally agree that religion evolved very early in human history, and many scientists even suggest there is evidence religion predates the origin of our own species.  The earliest religions, however, are not thought to be much like the many ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions that are so common today. Instead, they were most likely ideologically simple, and more or less egalitarian.  Their core beliefs might have amounted to little more than the notion that most things — including inanimate things — have a spirit or life force, and that those spirits live on after death.  It is entirely possible those ancestral religions contained no god concepts.

A few years ago, PZ Meyers nicely summed up a few of the cognitive processes that most likely provided the psychological foundation for the ancestral religiosity of our species:

There are human universals. We are curious or concerned about the world around us; we look for causal explanations for events; we like explanatory narratives that link sequences of events together; we tend to anthropomorphize and project our motivations and our expectation of agency on objects in our environment.

Meyers then added, “That’s human nature, and religion isn’t at all intrinsic to it.”  Today’s religions have roughly about the same relationship to our ancestral religiosity as a automobile has to walking.

It seems to me — and I could be very wrong about this — that Roger Trigg’s recent statements about the findings of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project are to a meaningful extent attempts to frame those findings as providing grounds to believe that today’s elaborate, organized religions and their ideologies are natural expressions of human religiosity.  And if that is his message, then frankly, I don’t think he’s got it right.

Our species has been around for about 260,000 years.  For only a tiny fraction of that time have we had ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions.  And no matter how fond we might be of those newfangled religions, they do not seem to represent humanity’s natural or default religiosity.

It is almost certainly true that humans have a natural predisposition to certain cognitive processes that, taken together, usually result in something we call “religiosity”.  But — and it’s a huge “but” — that religiosity is not the religiosity of, say, Christianity, most Hinduism, or Islam, but rather the religiosity of our ancestral hunting/gatherers.  And their religiosity was most likely ideologically simple — perhaps even to the point of being godless — and more or less egalitarian.


Other bloggers are discussing this same issue.  Here are four:

The Cognitive Dissenter:  New Oxford Study: Belief in god is natural.  Thinking takes more work.

Paradise Preoccupied: God in Genes?

Why Evolution Is True: New Oxford Study: Religion pervasive, ergo impossible to eradicate.

Friendly Atheist: Is Religious Belief Part of Human Nature?


I also have earlier posts on this issue here and here.

Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Evolution, Faith, Genetics, God(s), Liars Lies and Lying, News and Current Events, Psychology, Religion, Science

Is Belief in God Natural? Or Are the Early Reports Beginning to Stink?

It seems quite odd to me that early reports of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’s findings (reports to the effect that belief in God is natural) are coming out today without those findings — or any account of them — having been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal.  Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere in the early press that I’ve found of any intention to submit those findings to a peer reviewed scientific journal.  It is true the study is associated with the University of Oxford, but the thing is beginning to stink!

UPDATE:  The more I find out about these early reports the more it seems to me quite possible that the Project’s findings are being purposely distorted to make it look like they support the notions that (1) humans have an innate predisposition to belief in deity, and (2) that today’s religions are more or less the default religiosity of humanity.

I might blog more about this.

Anthropology, Belief, Faith, God(s), Late Night Thoughts, News and Current Events, Religion, Science

Belief in God is Natural?

It’s about two in the morning here, and I’m wondering whether it’s natural to believe in God.

There are, at this hour, a handful of early reports that the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, which is associated with the prestigious University of Oxford, has concluded its Cognition, Religion and Theology Project — and that the Project has found it’s natural to believe in God.

But I doubt those reports are true. I cannot be certain and this in only a hunch — but it seems like the early reports have misinterpreted the Project’s findings.

The reports are saying such things as, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…“, and, “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings…“, and, “Holding religious beliefs may be an intrinsically human characteristic…“.

So, what’s wrong?

Well, maybe nothing is wrong.  Maybe the Project did in fact find that religions are natural to humans, or that humans have a natural tendency to believe in God, and so forth.  But I wonder if those are the Project’s actual findings?  For I suspect they are not.

I suspect they are instead subtle misinterpretations of the findings.  And to explain just how subtle their misrepresentation of the findings might be, please consider very carefully these remarks of the biologist PZ Meyers, which he made sometime ago, but on the same subject:

There are human universals. We are curious or concerned about the world around us; we look for causal explanations for events; we like explanatory narratives that link sequences of events together; we tend to anthropomorphize and project our motivations and our expectation of agency on objects in our environment. That’s human nature, and religion isn’t at all intrinsic to it. Far from being the default, religion is a pathologic parasite that rides along on those human desires by promoting the illusion of agency as an all-encompassing explanation for everything, and by providing a framework for story-telling.

It is important to recognize here that, when Meyers talks about “our expectation of agency”, he is referring to the universal human tendency to think or expect that some “agent” (an “agent” is something that has a will, such as another human, a lion, or even a supposed god) is the cause of events in our environment.  When a tree suddenly falls down in a forest, our natural tendency is to think — at least at first — that something with a will caused the tree to fall down.  Hence, Meyers is saying that religions shamelessly exploit that natural human tendency.  They say, in effect, “Yes, your instincts are correct. Something with a will caused that tree to fall down, and that “something” was our God.”  Or a spirit, or a ghost, or fate, or some such thing.

Now, let’s return to the early reports of the Project’s findings.  When those reports say things like, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…”, they might be subtly misinterpreting the findings.  That is, I would not at all be surprised if the Project found a natural human tendency to see agency behind events.  But, for a number of reasons, I would be greatly surprised if the Project actually found a natural human tendency to see God behind events.  Or even a natural human tendency to see any deity — let alone the deity that gets capitalize as “God” — behind events.

One of the several reasons I would be surprised if it were God is that God seems to be a relatively late comer to human religiosity.  Our species has been on the planet for about 260,000 years.  During that time, most of the few folks who make relatively informed speculations about our ancestral religiosity, speculate that we were animists.  Animists do not believe in God.  Nor do they usually have a concept of any god, but they are instead people who think in terms of souls, life-forces, or spirits.  The Shinto religion of Japan is highly animistic.  If the Project actually found that humans have a natural tendency to see God — or a god — behind events, it would go against much that is either currently known, or currently suspected, about our ancestral religiosity.

Another thing about the early reports that I don’t much care for is their use of such terms as “religion” and “religious beliefs”.   It seems to me — even if it seems so to no one else — that the “human universals” PZ Meyers talks about are probably pretty close to the core of most early human religiosity.  That is, I doubt our ancestors did much to formalize their religiosity as firm or fixed beliefs, let alone develop much of anything in the way of elaborate belief systems.

Some of the earliest sedentary communities, for instance, such as at Çatal Höyük, seem to have had no hierarchical or organized religion.  While our ancestors surely had ritual, and while they surely had beliefs, they probably did not place anywhere near as much emphasis on their beliefs as many of us — especially in the West — do today.  As one Shinto priest told a Western theologian when the theologian asked him what he believed in, “I don’t think we have any beliefs.  We just dance.”

The most likely explanation for the word usage in the early reports of the Project’s findings is that the authors of those reports are simply trying to make the findings easily accessible to a wide audience.  You make things easily accessible by couching them in terms people already know and understand.  But doing so usually misrepresents to one extent or another anything that is out of the commonplace and ordinary.

Since I have not had a chance to read the Project’s findings, I cannot say for certain that the early reports misrepresent them. But I would be greatly surprised if they did not.  It will be interesting to find out.

Anthropology, Biology, Education, Evolution, Evolution and Creationism, Genetics, Ideologies, Learning, Liars Lies and Lying, News and Current Events, Political Issues, Politicians and Scoundrels, Politics, Religion, Science, Scientific Method(s), Teaching

A Mess in Texas

The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all.  — Eric Hennenhoefer

In the late 1980s, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) first mandated the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools.  In order to appease Texas Creationists, however, the Board inserted a peculiar requirement into the mandate.   The requirement was to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of the Theory of Evolution.

The apparent purpose of those peculiar words was to allow the Creationists on the Board an opening whereby they could require that the State’s science textbooks teach the Theory of Evolution the way they want it taught — as significantly less supported by the evidence than in fact it is.

For quite some time after its passage, however, the Texas requirement had little effect because the Creationists on the Board were outnumbered and could not push through their agenda.  Then, in the 2006 elections, the Creationists managed to capture seven of the Board’s 15 seats.  Since one of the remaining seats was a swing vote, the Creationists thus came into a good position to change the State’s science textbooks.

Whether the Creationists can or cannot change the State’s science textbooks will largely depend on the outcome of a three-day Board meeting that begins tomorrow.  At issue is the question of whether to retain the peculiar requirement that the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory be taught, or change that requirement to a recommendation that students “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence“.  Adopting the latter recommendation would forestall the Creationist attack on Texas science standards.

The upcoming decision of the Texas State Board of Education will influence what students learn far beyond the borders of Texas.  Texas is such a huge market for school textbooks that for reasons of profit textbook publishers often write their books to Texas state standards, and then sell those same books to other states without any changes.   Thus, many school districts outside of Texas stand to be impacted by the Texas decision.

Some of the people who will be making that decision appear to be kooks.   Board member Cynthia Dunbar, for instance,  has declared President Obama will conspire with terrorists to bring about an attack on the US leading to an Obama Dictatorship.   Board member Ken Mercer has called people in favor of teaching sound evolutionary science “Nazis” and “slave traders”.   And Board Chairman Don McLeroy wants to redefine science (.pdf) to include the study of the supernatural. All three of them are Creationists.

It seems strange that our village idiots should have power over the education of so many young minds.  If you are interested in following the debate this week, the TFN blog will be reporting on it in real time, beginning noon, Central Time, tomorrow.  The blog can be found here.

Anthropology, Biology, Children, Christianity, Evolution, Intellectual Honesty, John Freshwater, Liars Lies and Lying, People, Religion, Science, Teacher

The Firing of John Freshwater

Mount Veron, Ohio Middle School

Mount Vernon, Ohio is a small town with a big headache. The community of 15,000 in Central Ohio is divided over the actions of John Freshwater, a person found to be using his position as a middle school science teacher to undermine the separation of church and state, to teach creationism and intelligent design in his classrooms, and to even burn crosses on the arms of his students.

Yet, despite Mr. Freshwater’s behavior, quite a few people in Mount Vernon support him. Apparently among his most ardent supporters are the members of a local Christian group that calls itself “Minutemen United“, and who envision themselves as existing “…to wage war against a culture of God-haters”.

The division in the community began back in early April when Mr. Freshwater received a letter from his principal, William D. White, ordering him to remove all religious materials from his classroom.

Mr. Freshwater responded a little over a week later. In a letter to Principal White, he agreed to remove the Ten Commandments from his door, along with some biblical posters and spare Bibles from his classroom, but he refused to remove his personal Bible from where it was displayed on his desk.

“In addition, my superiors have ordered me to remove the Bible from the desk of my classroom. Because the Bible is personal, private property and the source of personal inner-strength in my own life the removal of it from my desk would be nothing short of infringement on my own deeply held, personal religious beliefs granted by God and guaranteed under the ‘free-exercise clause’ of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Mr. Freshwater wrote.

Mr. Freshwater soon thereafter gathered about 100 people together on Mount Vernon’s public square and read a declaration of his God-given and Constitutional right to keep his Bible on his desk. Within a couple days, some former students of his organized a rally for him which was attended by “hundreds of students [from both the high school and the middle school], joined by some parents and community members…”.

Up until this point the issue was being spun by Mr. Freshwater as solely a matter of whether he could keep his personal Bible on display in his classroom. But then the local newspaper, The Mount Vernon News, received a fax from an attorney representing anonymous plaintiffs. The fax read in part:

We are religious people, but we were offended when Mr. Freshwater burned a cross onto the arm of our child. This was done in science class in December 2007, where an electric shock machine was used to burn our child. The burn was severe enough that our child awoke that night with severe pain, and the cross remained there for several weeks. … We have tried to keep this a private matter and hesitate to tell the whole story to the media for fear that we will be retaliated against.

We are Christians who practice our faith where it belongs, at church and in our home and, most importantly, outside the public classroom, where the law requires a separation of church and state.

The plaintiffs — who wished to remain anonymous to prevent their child from being retaliated against — made clear in the fax that this was not about Mr. Freshwater’s Bible, which they did not object to, “but about the violation of laws and defiance of school policy”.

By the time the School Board met to discuss the matter, many more allegations had surfaced. Consequently, the Board met in executive session to decide to have an independent organization investigate the allegations, and Superintendent Steve Short announced, “The allegations against Mr. Freshwater are very serious. This is not about his personal Bible on his desktop. It is about the totality of his conduct.”

The organization that investigated Mr. Freshwater was HR on Call, a human resources company. It took all of May and most of June to pour over the records, interview people, and otherwise research the matter. Yesterday, the Company released it’s report. Among the findings:

•Mr. Freshwater did burn a cross onto the complaining family’s child’s arm using an electrostatic device not designed for that purpose. While there did not appear to be any intent by Mr. Freshwater to cause injury to any student, he was not using the device for its intended purpose. Contrary to Mr. Freshwater’s statement he simply made an “X” not a “cross,” all of the students described the marking as a “cross” and the pictures provided depict a “cross.”

•The Ten Commandments together with other posters of a religious nature were posted in Mr. Freshwater’s classroom. Most were removed after Mr. White’s letter of April 14, 2008, but at least one poster remained which Mr. Freshwater was again instructed to remove on April 16, 2008, but did not do so.

•Several Bibles were kept in Mr. Freshwater’s classroom including his personal Bible on his desk and one he checked out of the library placed on the lab table near the desk. Other Bibles that had been maintained in the room were removed by the time the investigators viewed Mr. Freshwater’s room.

•Mr. Freshwater engaged in teaching of a religious nature, teaching creationism and related theories and calling evolution into question. He had other materials in his classroom that could be used for that purpose.

•Mr. Freshwater engaged in prayer during FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] meetings in violation of the district’s legal obligations for monitoring such organizations.

•Mr. Freshwater participated and possibly led a prayer during an FCA meeting that concerned a guest speaker’s health. There is no conclusion as to whether such prayer was a “healing” prayer.

•There is no evidence Mr. Freshwater made statements about FCA members “being the saved ones” nor was there any corroboration to the allegation Mr. Freshwater gave FCA members Bibles for them to distribute. He did have two boxes of Bibles in the back of his room.

•Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.

So a story that began with a middle school science teacher’s refusal to remove a Bible from display on his desk had now turned into a bizarre tale of cross burnings, proselytizing, undermining the separation of church and state, and teaching creationism and intelligent design in a public school. But the single most astonishing act in the drama was yet to come.

Yesterday’s report reveals Mr. Freshwater has a long history of complaints against him — all of which have been more or less ignored until the most recent ones. John Freshwater has taught at Mount Vernon Middle School for 21 years. For at least the past 11 years, he has been the subject of numerous complaints lodged against him by his fellow teachers, his students, and their parents.

His colleagues over at the high school, for instance, claim his teaching of evolution is so flawed they are forced to re-teach the subject to his students when they get into high school. It has also come out that Mr. Freshwater has been told on at least several occasions to change his behavior, but has refused to do so. Only now, years after the complaints first started coming in, has anything been done about them.

Today, Friday, the School Board “…unanimously passed a resolution of intent to consider the termination of [Mr. Freshwater’s] teaching contract. “Board president Ian Watson said the board will proceed with termination at its meeting on July 7, unless Freshwater files a written request for a hearing within 10 days of receiving notice of the board’s intent to fire him.”

Yet even before today’s School Board news, Mr. Freshwater’s friends were aiming to payback the Board. The melodramatic Minutemen United group earlier this week launched a drive to recall the School Board. Although the drive does not seem to have much chance of succeeding, it might indicate just how hot tempers are in Mount Vernon these days.

Minutemen United was founded by David Daubenmire, a man who was himself sued by the ACLU in 1999 for leading the high school football team he coached in prayer. Mr. Daubenmire is a close friend of Mr. Freshwater and has called the accusations against him a “witch hunt”. Mr. Daubenmire has said:

The science experiment [the alleged burning of the student] took place in December, and the parents did not go to the police and didn’t file a criminal complaint. It was not until April, when John Freshwater refused to remove his Bible, that the school board rapidly made the decision to accuse him of things and then go back and find evidence.

With the exception of the science experiment, John Freshwater is teaching the beliefs and values that the majority of people in this community agree with. The only thing the On Call report found is evidence that Mr. Freshwater is a Christian.

So, Mr. Daubenmire is still trying to spin the story as merely about John Freshwater displaying a Bible.

There is much more to this story than I have the space for — so I have provided references and further reading at the end of this post. It occurs to me, however, that we have here one instance of what’s going on in many hundreds — even thousands — of science classrooms across the country. Teachers entrusted to teach science are instead teaching creationism and intelligent design.

A team led by Michael Berkman recently polled 2,000 high school science teachers across the nation. Sixteen percent of them — about one in every six teachers — identified themselves as creationists. Moreover:

…a quarter of the teachers also reported spending at least some time teaching about creationism or intelligent design. Of these, 48 percent — about 12.5 percent of the total survey — said they taught it as a “valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species”.

There are a lot of John Freshwater’s out there. And, intentionally or not, they are doing their best to undermine the nation’s science education.

I pity the kids who because of some fool teacher will grow up without an understanding of evolution. Not only will that close off some fields and opportunities for them, but how can anyone these days deeply understand human nature without understanding how human nature arose and evolved? Kids deprived of an adequate science education are kids who in the 21st Century will be left behind.

Main References and Further Reading:

Freshwater Considered for Contract Termination

Group Starts Preparations for Recalling Board Members

Independent Investigation of Complaint Regarding John Freshwater

Lawsuit Filed Against School, Teacher

Science Teacher Dissed Evolution

Students Back Defiant Teacher

Study: 16 Percent of US Science Teachers are Creationists

Special Blog References:

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars provides sharp details of the investigation report here.

Scott Pilutik, at Reality Based Community, has a brilliant insight into Mr. Freshwater’s betrayal of Jesus here.

Richard B. Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb has an excellent post on the larger significance of these events here.

Rob McGehee over at Wise Adder reports from down in the trenches of public school science teaching here.

Ceryx at The Bronze Gate explains one of the factors that moves creationists to deny evolution here.

Ed Darrell over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub has put up an outstanding post that begins with a thorough discussion of the scientific instrument used to burn the students here.

Anthropology, Biology, Culture, Environment, Evolution, God(s), Language, Society, Values

The Universal Moral Grammar

I pulled up an old article published on the web by Discover Magazine this morning and read, “Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser’s new theory says evolution hardwired us to know right from wrong.” Yet, that’s not quite what Marc Hauser is saying.

Instead, it would be more correct to say, Hauser is asserting something along these lines: Our concept that there is such a thing as right and wrong is hardwired into us by our evolution. We have a sort of universal “moral grammar”, but not a universal “moral language”. For instance: The notion it is wrong to harm an innocent person is universal, but specific notions of who is innocent and who is not innocent are far from being universal.

Yet, most certainly, Hauser is not saying right and wrong exist independent of us. In Hauser’s world, man is the measure of right and wrong — not some metaphysical standard of right and wrong.

Oddly enough, saying “man is the measure of right and wrong” does not preclude a god having something to do with that measure. For, if I were religious, I could always say something like, “God inscribed a universal moral grammar upon the human heart.”

Of course, were I both religious and uncomprehending, I could say something like, “God inscribed morality upon the human heart.” But that implies there is only one true morality — and implying that is just as silly as asserting there is only one true human language.

Another way of illustrating the distinction between moral grammar and moral language would be to say morality is hardwired into us much like tool use is hardwired into us. Humans naturally create and use tools. But the specific kinds of tools humans use can vary from culture to culture. And how tools are used can even vary from person to person. So, too, morality is hardwired into us on one level, yet is determined by our culture on another level, and on yet a third level is individual.