The Origins of Religion Part 2: Superstition and Spirituality


Having a complete sense of cause and effect helps people navigate through the world by being able to make accurate predictions as to the effects of actions and events.  In some cases, such as explaining cycling of the heavenly bodies, the changing seasons, harmful diseases, and even the movements and actions of living beings, early humans living in a prescientific world couldn’t complete their sense of cause and effect through natural processes; instead they overcame that deficiency by evoking superstitions – a belief in supernatural causality.

Early religions personified these supernatural agents as souls, spirits, and eventually gods and these agents caused, intervened, and acted on worldly events.  In order to make these supernatural agents more meaningful and memorable a multitude of stories were built up around them.  Before the invention of writing, the stories of souls, spirits, gods and their deeds were passed down from generation to generation orally.  Eventually some of those stories were written down.  It is anHorus exercise in futility to go through all of the gods that humanity has created since there have been tens of thousands of them.  We know today, of course, that all of them are imaginary.  As Richard Dawkins points out: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.”

Superstition was supplemented by spirituality – a connection with the divine.  A connection with the divine was doubtless perceived through altered states of consciousness in states of dreams, hallucinations, and trances.  These altered states of consciousness helped lead to the widespread belief in the duel nature of beings – that the mind was separate from and could exist independently of the body.  This further implied the existence of a soul or spirit as an animating force that could be applied to people, and by logic also extended to other animals and plants, and even objects such as rocks, rivers, clouds and stars.

Sir Edward Tylor, the father of modern social anthropology, called this belief that nature had an animating soul or spirit animism, vaulting the hitherto obscure term to prominence in his 1871 book Primitive Culture.  He believed that animism was the first phase in the evolution of religions and argued that people originally used religion to explain phenomena in the natural world.  According to Tylor, animism easily answers many questions early humans had such as what happens when we dream.  Souls wandering out of the body in some cases, or neighboring souls visiting the body in other cases provided a plausible answer.

Invoking souls, spirits, and eventually gods allowed early humans to complete their sense of cause and effect about how the world worked.  This is not to say their sense of cause and effect was correct, but it was now at least complete.  With a complete set of beliefs about how the world supposedly worked, the next step was to try to begin to cooperate with and influence the world in order to achieve desired goals.  The methods thought to accomplish this task include rituals, prayer, and other means which we will look at next.

 

Further reading:  The Dominate Animal by Paul and Anne Ehrlich; Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett; The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The Evolution of God by Robert Wright

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The Origins of Religion Part 1: Cause and Effect


Religion is one of the most prevalent and influential aspects of human civilization and culture.  Nearly all societies across the globe in every recorded era have some sort of religion, worship a god (or gods), or possess a set of religious beliefs.  People pour a great deal of time and energy into their religion with some willingly giving their life in the name of their sacred religion.  However, while nearly all groups of people have invented gods and the religious stories revolving around their gods, perhaps the most striking feature of religion is that these stories are wildly different.  Consider the differing religious gods, stories, and teachings of the Norse, Greek, Roman, Persians, Hindus, Egyptians, Aztecs, Babylonians, Chinese, Indians, Christians, and Jews – to name a few of the thousands of religions and gods known through history.  These religions and gods have a few similarities, such as creation stories and stories about what happens after death, but their particulars are all very different.  So which religion is right, if any?  And how did these stories and gods come into existence?  A systematic inquiry into the evolutionary origins of religion can elucidate some understanding to those questions – and many others – regarding religion.Ancient Religion

Religion is a worldview and can be described as a set of beliefs about the causes, nature, and purpose of the universe.  Since human beings, and to a lesser extent all other animals, navigate the world by developing a set of cause and effect it would have been important for our ancestors to develop a sense of understanding about how our world worked.  Animals develop their sense of cause and effect in order to carry out tasks essential to their lives, such as where to find food, how to get mates, and how to avoid danger.  With the evolution of human intellect – the ability to have abstract ideas, to communicate those ideas through language, and to remember things from the past – people are able to perceive more about the world than other animals and therefore have a greater sense of cause and effect. This also meant we could ask more questions and attempt to answer them the best that we could given our knowledge and understanding of the world.

The primitive world of our ancestors was filled with dangers and its workings would have seemed confusing.  Cooperating with nature by knowing how certain things worked would have seemed vital to our survival.  For instance, understanding why the Sun moved and how and why the seasons changed would have been important; understanding the weather would have been important; understanding why people got sick and diseased would have been important; understanding what caused the plants to grow and the animals to move would have been important, but how do you explain all of that?  Before the laws of motion and gravity were established; before plate tectonics and atmospheric and oceanic physics were explained; before microscopic germs, viruses, and bacteria were discovered; before the laws of thermodynamics, the process of photosynthesis and metabolic pathways were described; people had no clue as to the correct answers.  But people still needed answers to complete their sense of cause and effect so they could begin to understand how the world worked in an attempt to cooperate with it.Ancient Religion1

To take one example: noticing that the seasons change is important because when that happens we notice that some animals migrate at certain times of the year, plants grow and die at certain times of the year, and the temperature changes at certain times of the year.  When we draw connections between one thing and a second thing in the world – such as animals migrating when winter comes – we are creating relationships that complete our sense of cause and effect.  We can now better predict the effects of our actions on the world.  With human intellect, however, humans differ from other animals in that we not only notice that the seasons change, we can ask *why* the season changes.  Due to the relationship nature of causes and effects, it’s possible that knowing more about the first thing might help us understand more about the second thing.  So understanding why the seasons change might keep us from staving or freezing by helping us to better predict when the seasons will change.  People all over the world noticed these things and tried to answer the questions the best they could and they did it in the same basic manner – by invoking gods and spirits as causes to these unexplainable actions and events.  Thus in a prescientific world, the invention of religion with an accompanying set of beliefs about how the world works helped to complete a cause and effect understanding of the world for early human societies. Next, we’ll incorporate the role of the supernatural and spirituality into the origin of religion.

 

Further reading:  The Dominate Animal by Paul and Anne Ehrlich; The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan; The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins; Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett

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Capitalism’s Problem: Exponential Growth in a Finite System


The global economy has expanded at an ever increasing rate during the past century, increasing at a rate of exponential growth.  A study done by a Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkley estimated world GDP increased to $41.016 trillion in 2000 from $1.102 trillion in 1900 – a growth rate of approximately 3.617% per year.  While GDP only implies the market value of all good produced, all aspects affecting the economy have been increasing at an exponential rate, from human population growth to agricultural production, to industrial production, consumption of raw materials, and pollution.  Nearly all economists and most people view this feat as a positive achievement and they look to continue this same pattern of growth into the foreseeable future.  Hardly any are asking if this pattern is sustainable.

First, a word on exponential growth.  Exponential growth is a quantity which increases proportionally to what is already there.  This is different from linear growth, where a quantity increases at a constant rate over a given period of time.  Consider folding a piece of paper measuring .025 cm in thickness.  You have just doubled the thickness of the original piece of paper.  Fold it again and you have quadrupled the original thickness.  Fold it a third time and this piece of paper is 8 times as thick as the original paper, measuring .2 cm.  Continue folding until you have done this 30 times and how thick do you think the paper is?  The paper is now 268.44 km.  How about another ten folds to 40?  This paper is now 274,877 km long, over halfway from the earth to the moon.  And with one more fold the thickness will pass the moon.  Nine more folds, totaling 50 folds from the original thickness and our paper is now 281,474,976 km, well past the distance from the earth to the sun.

For any quantity to grow exponentially it does not need to double every period, and you can easily calculate an approximate doubling time for a given growth rate.  If the original sheet of paper only ExponentialvsLinearShortExponentialvsLinearLong increased it thickness by 10% every “fold” (or period increase) the approximate doubling time would be 7 folds.  This means it will take approximately seven times longer for the thickness to reach the sun, or about 350 folding periods.  This is the power of exponential growth. In the short run exponential growth is not much different from linear growth.  The impact lies in its long term effects.  Now, given that our businesses want to expand their output exponentially, does anybody see a potential problem here?

The obvious problem is that we live on a planet with finite space and resources.  Consider world metal production which has risen at a rate of 5% historically.  In 2008 more than 1.8 billion tons of metal was produced.  If this pace were to continue in a little over 700 years the yearly mining output would be greater than the entire mass of the planet.  However we would actually mine the weight of the planet in a single year much sooner than this because this figure only refers to the amount of metal produced, not the tonnage of ore needed to be mined to produce the metal, which is much greater.   Obviously this can’t happen and just as obvious, this is a problem for our current economic system.  As I see it, the question that we need to be asking in our economic and policy debates is what happens when our economic system, which depends on exponential growth, reaches the limits to growth?  The only possible answer is that it breaks down.

 

Further reading: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update by Donella Meadows; Collapse by Jared Diamond; One With Nineveh by Paul and Anne Ehrlich

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Evolution Unshrouded Part 5: Why Evolution Matters


“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” – Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1973.

Biology, the science of life, has an enormity of subfields – marine biology, biochemistry, botany, genetics, microbiology, ecology, which interact with many other fields – medicine, agriculture, economics, environmental science, climate that influence our everyday lives.  Understanding evolution is therefore critical in making informed decisions about various topics, problems, and issues.  Let’s take a look at some.

Medicine – Since bacteria and virus have such short generation times, they evolve very quickly.  Understanding this salient fact yields some useful knowledge such as:

  • Flu vaccinations should be taken yearly as viral strands rapidly evolve
  • Antibiotics shouldn’t be overused (or taken for viruses for that matter) as it will encourage the evolution of resistant strands
  • If antibiotics are proving unhelpful in fighting a bacterial infection you may be up against a resistant strand.  Taking a stronger dose will only increase the selection pressure.  Instead, take a combination of different antibiotics.
  • Understanding genetics allows people to manage hereditary diseases

Agriculture – Billions of dollars are lost every year as a result of ignoring evolutionary theory.

  • Monoculture can lead to a lack of genetic variation, making them vulnerable to disaster due to changing environmental conditions
  • Using a preventive spraying of pesticides leads to pests evolving resistances to those pesticides and rendering them less useful in the future.  Pesticides should only be used as necessary.

Economics – Misunderstanding evolutionary theory results in economic losses in many industries.  A new field called Evolutionary Economics is growing up around the idea of combining evolutionary theory with economics.

Environmental Science – We are rapidly learning about the ecosystem services that maintaining a healthy environment provides humanity

  • Hunting and farming for the largest animals, or animal traits, puts a strong selection pressure on being smaller.  As elephant poachers hunted for elephants with the largest tusks, those with smaller tusks had a reproductive advantage resulting in small tusks spreading through the population.  Fishing for the biggest fishes results in selection pressures for smaller fishes.  Hunting and farming should strive for proportional size yields.
  • Understanding the evolutionary history of organisms can help preserve biodiversity that allows ecosystem services such as: clean drinking water, decomposition of waste, nutrient dispersal and recycling, providing energy, food, and raw materials, and so on

Climate – Climate provides a strong selection pressure on nearly all life on Earth

  • Plants sprout, flower, and grow earlier in the season if the climate is cooling and later in the season if the climate is warming.  This affects planting and harvesting of many crops.

This is not by any means a comprehensive list although it should be easy to see that understanding and applying evolutionary theory has a wide range of effects on humanity.

 

Further reading: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond; Collapse by Jared Diamond; The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock; One With Niniveh by Paul and Anne Ehrlich; Betrayal of Science and Reason by Paul and Anne Ehrlich

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Evolution Unshrouded Part 4: The Evidence for Evolution


The evidence for evolution is abundant in size and vast in scope, consisting of lines of inquiry from multiple fields converging on this single great insight.  With that said, the rich evidence available in the fossil record would be sufficient to prove that the evolution of species has occurred.  Although the fossil evidence alone would fill many volumes, I will attempt to summarize and outlineHuman Fossils the main lines of evidence here.  As good as any place to begin, I suppose, is the fossil record.

  1. The Fossil Record – Sometimes when a plant or animal dies its hardened remains can be preserved or fossilized through a variety of physical and chemical processes. These hardened remains reveal the physical history of our ancestors and show clear linkages and intermediaries between past and present groups of species.  Intermediaries between all kinds of groups of animals have been found such as between fishes and amphibians, reptiles and mammals, dinosaurs and birds, terrestrial mammals and whales, human and chimpanzee, and so on.  Many intermediaries were predicted *before* the actual fossils were found, showing the predictive power of evolution.
  2. Artificial Selection – Charles Darwin began On the Origin of Species with a section on
    Evolution of Corn

    Evolution of Corn

    artificial selection, which is similar to natural selection except that it is humans rather than nature  selecting for particular traits.  Auroch’s, the ancestors of some of our domesticated cattle, have been modified by repeatedly selecting for qualities such as their ability to produce milk, aggressive behavior, and so on.  Corn was breed for size and calorie content and barely resembles its ancestor strains.  Artificial selection is evident in the domestication of other plants such as wheat, rice, and various fruits and vegetables, and animals such as dogs, cats, sheep, goats and racehorses.

  3. Microevolution observed in the laboratory – Microevolution has been observed many times in the lab.  A famous example is from the lab of Richard Lenski, an evolutionary biologist working at Michigan State University, that has been running a long term E. Coli evolution experiment since 1988 with a duration of longer than 60,000 generations that has shown evolution in action.  The evolved resistance of DDT in fruit fly’s is another example.
  4. Evolution observed in nature – Evolution is sometimes difficult to notice occurring in nature due to its slow, gradual process that requires a lengthy timespan of many generations.  This is why its easier to observe in the lab by using bacteria or fruit fly’s which have shPeppered Mothsorter time spans compared to many other plants and animals, such as humans, red wood trees, and foxes.  In any case, evolution has still been observed a few times nature.  The classic textbook example is that of the peppered moth changing its color due to selection pressures from pollution during the Industrial Revolution in England.  Other observations include: populations of flowers blooming earlier due to warming weather; insects evolving resistances to pesticides; and lactose tolerance (technically called lactase persistence), and the sickle-cell trait (a perfect example of natural selection given that the geographical distribution of the gene for hemoglobin S and the distribution of malaria in Africa virtually overlap).  This leads us to…
  5. Geographic distribution of plants and animals – The observed snapshot of the characteristics of plants and animals fits what would be predicted by modern evolutionary theory.  Populations of closely related species should resemble those in close proximity to each other Geographic Distribution of Animalsand gradually become less similar as you move further away.  While on his historic voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin noticed that finches and tortoises on the Galapagos Islands resembled those on the South American mainland and concluded that “one species had been taken and modified for different ends.”  This phenomenon is observed all of the world and is explained by the geographic speciation of plants and animals.
  6. Evidence from DNA – A process known as DNA sequencing, which determines the order of the nucleotides in a DNA molecule, can be used to compare the DNA of any two species.  Modern evolutionary theory predicts that closely related species – those with a recent common ancestor such as humans and chimpanzee – should share a higher percentage of their DNA than more distantly related species – such as humans and frogs, or humans and pine trees – and guess what?  They do.
  7. Vestiges in species –  A vestige in biology is a part or organ of an organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution.  The examples in nature of abundant.  Whales have no hind legs but have tiny bones in them which are remnants of the hind legs of their walking ancestors from the distant past.  Birds such as ostriches do not fly but have stubs of wings from their flying ancestors.  Numerous species who now live in the dark have lost their eyes but still contain eye sockets.  All mammals, including humans and the other tailless primates, have a tail at one point in their development.  Humans have a tail for a period of about four weeks in our embryological development and we possess a tailbone when born, despite not having a tail.  Along with a vestigial tail humans have a long list of vestiges.  We still possess the genetic machinery to make our hairs raise when we’re cold (to trap in more heat) or when we’re afraid (to appear larger) even though we have lost most of our hair.  We call this goosebumps.

This list barely scratches the surface of the evidence for evolution but provides a good place to start.  The evidence for evolution is extremely vast and conclusively proves evolution as a fact.  Knowing that evolution is a fact, we can now look at why understanding evolution is important.

 

Further reading: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins; Climbing Mount Probable by Richard Dawkins; The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins; Human Natures by Paul Ehrlich

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Evolution Unshrouded Part 3: The Process of Natural Selection


The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is the only known process able to accurately explain the diversity of life that accounts for all the observable evidence. Evolution by natural selection was discovered simultaneously by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in the middle of the 19th century and was jointly presented to the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858.  Charles Darwin historically receives a bulk of the credit for this revolutionary discovery, justifiably, as he published a comprehensive book, On the Origin of Species, one year later that contained abundant documentary evidence to support his conclusions.

Despite the incredulity of some people, the process of natural selection is remarkably simple to understand. Variations among individuals exist within a population of species and as a result each individual interacts with their environment slightly differently. Some individuals will necessarily be suited slightly better or slightly worse in relation to others to survive and reproduce in their particular environment. Those suited slightly better will survive longer (at least long enough to reproduce) and reproduce more, passing those slightly better characteristics on to their offspring, who in turn will reproduce more. Those suited slightly worse will not survive as long (or not even long enough to reproduce) and reproduce less offspring. Eventually those characteristics favorable to survival and reproduction will come to predominate the population, and the species will have evolved. Characteristics could be the color of a bird, or they could be the size and shape of its beak, the design of its wing, the shape of its eye, or anything else that would aid in survival and reproduction.  This process of differential survival and reproductive success is called natural selection.

Evolution by natural selection has been called “decent through modification” and it works like an algorithmic process. Algorithms are logical rules that if followed will yield a certain result.  If certain conditions are meant, by means of an underlying mindless process, the results are guaranteed.  Long division is a simple example of an algorithmic process, as are all computer programs.   Darwin’s algorithm goes as such:

1)      Heredity: Characteristics of organisms are passed onto decedents, but with slight variations – no two organisms are exactly alike

2)      Competition: There is competition and a struggle for life.

3)      Selection: Those decedents with advantageous variations – any that help one survive and reproduce – will out-reproduce all others, and their characteristics will then become commonplace within the population

4)      Repeat: These slightly modified decedents are organisms capable of having children, so repeat step 1

Naturally, some people still will read this and be inclined to reject the notion that evolution occurs in nature. Thankfully, there is an overflowing wealth of evidence available to support the theory.

 

Further reading: Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins; The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins; Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

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Evolution Unshrouded Part 2: What Evolution Is


I cannot tell you how many times I have read or heard people say ridiculous things when talking about evolution like “So a monkey gave birth to a human” or “We evolved from apes” or “There is no evidence for evolution” or “It can’t prove how life started so it’s worthless” or one of the classic arguments from the ignoramus “Evolution is just a theory so it could be wrong”. Then I have to correct them by explaining that species don’t just give birth to new species because evolution happens slowly and gradually, and that we didn’t evolve from apes rather we shared a common ancestor with the apes, and that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and that Darwin’s theory explains the origins of species, not the origin of life, and that evolution is just a theory in the same sense that the germ theory of disease and the theory of gravity are just theories.

Evolution is the cumulative adaptation to environmental pressures. Evolution is cumulative because it builds upon the current features and traits of the organism through successive additions. Adaptations are any traits that contribute to the probability of the organism surviving and multiplying. The environment is where the organism lives, and environmental pressures are any factors that affect an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce.

A species living on flat plains could be adapted to avoiding predators and catching prey by being spindly and speedy. On wide open, flat land, speed would be a survival advantage. If some members of its species wander onto the nearby mountainside, maybe due to overpopulation on the plains or scarcity of food or introduction of a new predator on the plain environment or because they got lost in a storm – the reason itself doesn’t matter; a new trait other than speed might be selected for, like strength for climbing over hills and rocks. Over many successive generations the stronger and bulkier –but slower – members of the group will have more reproductive success, passing on their traits of strength and bulk to their offspring. The fast spindly members of the group will eventually fade from existence as their traits are not suited to this new mountain environment. Their spindly and speedy cousins on the nearby plain will still be selected for being spindly and speedy. If the two groups stay separated long enough, eventually the stronger and bulkier group will grow further and further apart from their spindly and speedy cousins and the two groups will have evolved into two separate species. But remember, they shared the same distant common ancestors. Something like this probably happened to donkeys and horses in their evolutionary history.

That’s it. That’s what evolution is in a nutshell. A good way to visualize how it works is by imagining a branch on a tree splitting into two different twigs. The tips of the two twigs are the new species, but they connect back to the one branch on the tree. With that, it’s time to take a look at the process by which evolution works.

 

Further reading: Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins; The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

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Evolution Unshrouded Part 1: Background on Evolutionary Thought


The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is the fundamental insight of biology, and one of the greatest scientific insights that has ever been revealed to humanity.  Unfortunately, it is one of the least understood even though it answers some of the biggest questions people have been wondering about all over the world since at least the beginning of civilization, and almost certainly earlier.  If I am to use world religions as a measuring stick then people all over the world and throughout all of civilized history have been asking the same basic questions.  Who are we?  Where did we come from?  And why are we here?  Countless creation myths have been conjured up to explain those questions.  Many still persist and are taken quite literally today, despite them easily being shown as demonstrably false for anyone serious, curious, and intellectually honest enough to find out the facts for themselves.  Many of the books I have listed in my library section do this and would be a good place to start.  Anyway, apparently then, since all groups of people from all over the world in all times have asked these questions, it is in our human nature to want to know the answer.  But people living 2000 years ago at a lower scientific level than us had no way of knowing the answers, so they made up answers that seemed to work well enough for them given the limited knowledge of the world they had at the time.  People living near the coast created lots of sea gods to help them answer those questions, people living in the deserts invented sun gods, and so on.  This is not to say that the answers the people made up were correct, but they did provide a satisfactory answer to those questions so people could stop wondering about them.

Great Chain of Being

But people did not stop wondering about them, at least not all people.  The Middle Ages in Western Europe was by and large a total Christian society, molded by the writings of one of Christianity’s most influential figures, St. Augustine of Hippo.  During end the Middle Ages in Europe however, the unquestionable, accepted dogma of the Catholic Church was starting to come into question in various forms.  Around the 14th century in Venice, Florence, and other cities in Italy, there began a revival in the arts – sculpting, painting, and architecture, and a spirit creative spirit began flowing in Western Europe that had not been around in over a millennium.  A century later, around 1450, the printing press was invented and introduced into Europe by Johannas Gutenberg.  Three years later, Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantium – the Eastern Roman Empire, fell.  The significance of this event is that the Eastern Roman Empire was most Greek and Constantinople held in it its great Imperial Library, containing many of the ancient Greek (and Roman) texts which by this time had been forgotten about in Western Europe.  So the city was sacked, the library was pillaged, and many of these books found their way to the printing press and began to facilitate around Western Europe, further kindling the intellectual spirit.   Then in the early 16th century the Protestant Reformation hit Europe like a bombshell, questioning the absolute authority of the Bible, and ultimately proving to be a triumph of literacy and the power and influence of the printing press.  At about the same time Nicolaus Copernicus published his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, challenging the Church’s geocentric cosmology and instead proposed that the Sun was at the center of the solar system.  This was confirmed within the century by Galileo Galilei and proved by the invention of the telescope.

The Great Chain of Being, a central dogma of the medieval church that has since quietly vanished from the public discourse, was being torn down and demolished by the scientific revolution.  One obvious question to the educated aristocracy of the time was if the church’s cosmology was all wrong, then maybe their dogma on the origins of species was all wrong too.  Evolution was not a novel idea before the time of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace independently came to their same conclusion of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution.  The most famous promoter of the idea of evolution was by the French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, commonly known as Lamarck, who at the end of the 18th century proposed that species do change through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  In simple terms, inheritance of acquired characteristics would mean that if a lumberjack built up large arms cutting down trees over the course of his life, then he would pass those acquired characteristics on to his offspring.  Obviously Lamarck’s hypothesis was rigorously challenged.  For example, it is quite obviously that if I get a scar on my wrist during the course of my life, that scar isn’t passed down to my offspring.  However at this time it was becoming increasingly apparent that species do change over time, or evolve.  Fossils were beginning to turn up in rocks and it was clear that species could go extinct.  The question no one could answer was, what was the mechanism for evolution?  This is what Darwin and Wallace achieved.  They explained the process by which species evolved, and by understanding that process we can understand who we are and where we came from.  But first, we need to understand what evolution is.

 

Further reading: Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy (12 lectures) by Professor Edward Larson

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A Unification of Scientific Knowledge


All branches of science are different means of studying the universe along different points on the same spectrum. Physics, chemistry, biology, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, anthropology, ecology and all other fields of science are divided in ways that make it easier for us to study them and more comprehensible for us to understand. Atomic physics is not separate from chemistry just as chemistry is not separate from biology; both fields study atoms but on two different scales.

Making all the connections for adjacent fields of science is easier for some fields and more difficult for others. Atomic physics studies electrons as they move around the nucleus of an atom and what happens as a result. Chemistry studies how atoms interact with other atoms by forming and breaking bonds and what happens as a result. The jump from chemistry to biology is more difficult to make due to the immense magnitude of the billions of chemical reactions happening within a biological organism, but can be made easier to understand by organizing the information into subfields such as biochemistry. But no matter how you look at it, all of biology is still grounded in chemistry.  Biology studies how certain chemicals organize and interact with each other to make life happen. Evolutionary biology studies how chemicals got into the specific arrangements that make life possible and how those arrangements change over time.

The same connections can be done for all other fields of science. The jump from biology to evolutionary psychology is probably the most difficult because that depends on understanding how the brain creates thoughts, feelings, urges, desires and so on. That does not mean the jump is impossible to make, it just means it’s difficult for some people to understand how the jump can be made. Evolutionary psychology studies how the mind works and the mind is the product of the brain, which is a biological organ. The brain was created by genes, which are units of chemistry all composed entirely of atoms. There has never been a single function or property of the brain observed or discovered that did not obey well established laws of chemistry. It is just that there are so many combinations of complicated chemical reactions happening inside the brain that trying to understand the functioning of the brain in terms of chemistry makes the task impossible for us. A person would die of old age before he could map out a chemical formula for the brain, and even if it was possible to do so it would be completely worthless since nobody else would be able to use it or understand what it meant or how it worked.

All human behavior is a function of the design of human brains. As a social species, we are constantly interacting with each other in the ongoing struggle for survival and reproduction. Social psychology studies how brains and minds of humans interact with other brains and minds while in groups. We share this planet with not only humans but with all other species. Ecology studies how groups of biological organisms interact with themselves and their environment. Ultimately, every field of science is just a specialized field of atomic physics.  The trick to a unification of scientific knowledge is using first principles to connect and make fluid transitions between adjacent scientific fields, and then build up a body of information from there. The goal of this web site is to connect the disparate fields of science and use that knowledge and information in improving our own lives and society.

 

Further reading: Consilience by E.O. Wilson

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