Archive October 2009

Judging the internet — and books Ken Perrott Oct 30

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Normally I enjoy getting a new book. A chance to leaf through for a general impression and then get stuck into reading.

But I have one that I must read, and I keep putting off. For some reason it doesn’t appeal. Now, after reading the Telegraph article, Internet rules and laws: the top 10, from Godwin to Poe, I know why.

The article refers to DeMyer’s Second Law: ’Anyone who posts an argument on the internet which is largely quotations can be very safely ignored, and is deemed to have lost the argument before it has begun.’

quote-mining-fundie-quote-mining-fallacy-demotivational-poster-1211866892Obviously very relevant for creationists who love to go in for quote mining.

But that is what is wrong with the book. Leafing through one just gets an impression of huge numbers of quotes.

For fun (and to postpone the actual reading) I scanned one chapter and did word counts. This chapter had only 20% of material actually written by the author. The rest were quotes. Talk about letting others do the heavy lifting!

So I am not impressed. But I might do more of this in the future. When I need to judge a book – scan a chapter and determine the proportion of quoted material.

It’s worth reading this article on internet rules. So much of it rings true. Something I must watch, though, is my tendency to use exclamations. The Law of Exclamation says: “The more exclamation points used in an email (or other posting), the more likely it is a complete lie. This is also true for excessive capital letters.”

Thanks to Pharyngula (I didn’t know we had a rule book!) for the link.


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A Universe From Nothing Ken Perrott Oct 29

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The origin of the universe is one of the biggest questions there is. Some people resort to easy answers — which don’t answer anything. But its good to know that others do take the question seriously and actively research it.

Here is a great lecture from Lawrence Krauss — ’A Universe from Nothing’.

He is always an informative and entertaining lecturer. He injects quite a bit of humour into this talk he gave at the Athiest Alliance International Convention held in California earlier this month.

‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009.

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Defending science and reason Ken Perrott Oct 28


Book Review: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor Stenger

Price: US$12.92
Paperback: 282 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1591027519
ISBN-13: 978-1591027515

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This book is timely. The ’New Atheism’ hit our awareness in the mid-part of the decade when Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith became a best-seller. This was quickly followed by more best-sellers from the authors Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (the author of this book). And then there was the response. Many books have been written, mostly be theists, attacking the ’New Atheists.’ Although none of the later was a best-seller they did suggest that a new stage in the religion-atheism debate was underway.

Stenger’s new book is also useful because it helps put this whole debate in context. He summarises that nature of the ’New Atheism movement’ (although it is hardly a movement as there was no coordination in publishing these books). He briefly summarises the arguments of the ’New Atheism’ and the arguments employed by those attacking ’New Atheism.’ Then he shows the fallacies in the arguments employed by the ’New Christians.’ In some cases he reveals the way many of the ’New Atheist’ positions have been distorted and misrepresented. In others he deals with the substance of these arguments — particularly those dealing with scientific issues.

As an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Stenger is an ideal person to write on this subject

The nature of New Atheism

Most of the New Atheists recognise the 2001 religiously motivated terrorist attacks in New York helped spur them to action. I suspect they were also reacting against the religious bullying characteristic of the time. Islamic threats to authors like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Christian Right attacks on abortion rights, gender rights, stem cell research and teaching evolutionary science.

I am somewhat cynical about the term ’New Atheism’ — as if we had suddenly discovered the subject. And the label has probably come from the critics, anyway. But there are some specific characteristics to the current wave of atheist revival worthy mentioning.

Stenger points out the well-known New Atheists are mostly science based. Sam Harris (The End of Faith – 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation – 2006) has a degree in philosophy and is working on a Ph D in neuroscience. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion – 2006) is a well-known biologist with years of research and science popularisation behind him. Victor J. Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis – 2007) has a long research career in physics and astronomy and has written several books popularising and defending science. Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon – 2006) is a philosopher of science who has written extensively on scientific subjects. And while Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great – 2007) is not a scientist he does defend and use science in his debates.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel – 2006) is sometimes included as a New Atheist. While her professional qualifications are in humanities rather than science she identifies strongly with many of the positions taken by the others.

New Atheist issues

These include:

God is a scientific question: After all science studies reality, statements of fact. This is implicitly conceded by many religious apologists who use science-based reasoning such as the ’fine-tuning’ and ’big bang’ arguments for the existence of their gods. Most theologians, however, strongly oppose this, preferring to keep their god safe from scientific investigation.

Religious claims should not be protected by false respect: They call for such claims to be discussed, debated and submitted to rational inquiry in the same way we do with scientific, political and sporting claims. Religion should not be allowed to make claims about reality but deny rational investigation of such claims. Faith should not be given a free pass.

This assertiveness is a characteristic feature of the ’New Atheists’ — one which has annoyed some other atheists as well as believers. Even some atheists accept the argument that religion has a special place and its claims should be protected against rational inquiry and normal human discussion.

Faith itself is a problem: Even when held by moderates. Promotion, even glorification, of faith is dangerous as it provides a base for extremists to justify antihuman actions. To some extent even the moderate believers must bear responsibility for supporting extremism if they promote faith against reason.

Proud defence of science and reason: They will assert these principles and oppose any attempt to make a place for those who wish to undermine science or claim territory for religion that it doesn’t deserve. This has helped disperse the idea that science and religion should be placed in separate compartments, ’non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA)’ (see Morals, values and the limits of science).

Stenger describes the position of many scientists and their organisations that science has nothing to say about gods and the supernatural as disingenuous. This is important today when religious apologists try to distort and misrepresent science to provide ’evidence’ for their gods.

Consciousness-raising: They have all been active in the consciousness-raising of people for atheism and reason. Their books, appearances, videos, lectures, etc., attract huge attention and have helped atheists to ’come out’ and publicly acknowledge their beliefs.

Human and democratic rights: The ’New Atheists’ have all spoken in defence of human and democratic rights. They have been assertive on these issues when many liberals have preferred to acquiesce against Islamic and other religious threats and customs in the belief they were advancing multiculturalism

The hostile response

The web site estimates publication of about 40 books attacking the ’New Atheists,’ mainly in response to Dawkins ’The God Delusion.’ Study of ’New Atheism’ and ’The God Delusion’ have even been incorporated into some theological education programmes.

Stenger discusses some of the reaction by authors like John Haught (God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – 2008), Dinesh D’Souza (What’s So Great about Christianity – 2007) and Alister McGrath (The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine — 2007). Many of their arguments and claims are of course straw men and easily disposed of. However, Stenger does devote several chapters to subjects like the problem of evil, supernatural claims, the nature of science, faith and evidence, compatibility of religious and scientific views, human consciousness, morality and ’being good without a god.’

This makes the book useful as a summary of the whole subject providing the arguments of both sides on all the important areas.

Some scientific issues

I was personally pleased that Stenger provides authoritative and informed rejection of some of the religious apologetics attacks on, and misrepresentation of, science used by these ’New Christians.’ He demolishes the arguments for a god based on formation of the universe (the ’big bang’ and ’the singularity’) and ’fine-tuning’ of physical constants. I discussed the first issue (the cosmological argument) in Godless cosmology.

Stenger argues far more believers accept the cosmological design agenda behind the ’fine-tuning’ argument than biological intelligent design (ID). Theologians who won’t have a bar of ID will use ’fine-tunign’ arguments. However, he shows that is wishful thinking, that many of the claimed examples of ’fine-tuning’ just are not true (see Fiddling with ’fine-tuning’) and the argument usually assumes that physical constants can be varied independently.

I also like the way he rejects the claim made by apologists, and some defenders of science, that science cannot study the ’supernatural.’ That the scientific paradigm restricts itself to only natural phenomena.  ’Is this supposed to mean that scientists would ignore a miracle if they saw one?’ I would add of course not! They would rush to investigate it with thoughts of Nobel Prizes in mind. After all — what are miracles but phenomena that appear to defy natural logic because we don’t yet understand them? And investigation and understanding are what scientists specialise in.

Critics of the New Atheists often accuse them of ’scientism’ — the idea ’that science is the only means that can be used to learn about the world and humanity’. I have been accused of that myself. So am pleased Stenger disposes of this charge with the assertion these critics ’cannot quote a single new atheist who has said that. We fully recognise the value of and participate in other realm of thought and activity such as art, music, literature, poetry, and moral philosophy. At the same time, where observed phenomena are at issue, we insist that scientific method has a proper role. This includes questions of the supernatural and the existence of any god who actively engages in the affairs of the universe.’

Another chauvinistic Christian assertion Stenger denies is that Christianity was somehow responsible for the rise of modern science. ’Maybe, as many Christian apologists claim, Western religions helped science develop by their own looking outward for God. However, I am not ready to give religion too much credit since science goes back centuries before Jesus to the axial age in Greece.’

Eastern religion

Stenger supports suggestions from Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore that atheists should appreciate some of the insights of Buddhism and others spiritualists and mystics of the east. They believe these can help us in understanding of our own minds and in developing a calm attitude towards life. Practises such as meditation can be stripped of their dogma and supernatural explanations and help encourag mental health.

There is little to fault with this book. Stenger writes in his usual style. A style that is readable, economical and clear. One rather parochial criticism — he is wrong in his claim that atheists form a majority in New Zealand. The 2006 census showed 32% of the population claiming no religion. Statistics on belief are always difficult to obtain and interpret and unfortunately he does not provide a reference for his assertion.

So, take that with a grain of salt. But if the subject interests you, whatever, your personal religious belief, this is a book you should read.


See also: Quantum Gods my review of Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness.

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NZ blogs sitemeter ranking — October ‘09 Ken Perrott Oct 26

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Currently I have found 123 NZ blogs with publicly accessible sitemeter stats. This is about 20% of the total on my database.

The blogs are listed in the table below, together with daily visits and page view numbers averaged over the previous 7 days. The data was that given by by the NZ blog ranking tool on October 23rd.

This can be seen at NZ blogs average daily visits

Have a look at that tool. Its a way of comparing your own blog’s performance from day to day -  a roller coaster ride which can be quite exciting!

Just be aware that it relies on spreadsheets at Googles Docs and data is not always available. If the data is missing or incomplete, wait a while and reload the page. it will eventually show up.

Meanwhile I am still keen to hear of any other blogs with publicly available sitemeter stats that I have missed. Contact me if you know of any.

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Blog Visits/day Page Views/day
1 The Dim-Post 1346 2406
2 No Right Turn 946 1311
3 TUMEKE! 733 857
4 roarprawn 570 829
5 A cat of impossible colour 555 782
6 Homepaddock 448 668
7 Tales from a godless monkey 408 1424
8 MacDoctor Moments 390 555
9 Einstein Music Journal# 374 547
10 The Wellingtonista 361 552
11 Open Parachute 339 424
12 Canterbury Atheists 336 503
13 Notes from the bartender 334 646
14 The Hand Mirror 320 423
15 In a strange land 302 440
16 The visible hand in economics 276 366
17 Reading the Maps 270 382
18 eyeCONTACT 248 403
19 Offsetting Behaviour 239 389
20 Halfdone 221 265
21 MandM 212 387
22 Poneke’s Weblog 210 242
23 fisheye perspective 191 317
24 Liberation 165 261
25 Put ‘em all on an island# 164 204
26 The Dropkicks 162 248
27 Show your workings 161 243
28 Anti-Dismal 142 315
29 Hitting Metal With A Hammer 134 173
30 Workers Party 128 236
31 Cluttercut 105 166
32 The Fundy Post 100 121
33 Sustain:if:able Kiwi 99 203
34 Heart felt 92 144
35 Scepticon 72 88
36 Capitalism is bad 71 93
36 Quote Unquote 71 96
36 Home education Foundation 71 113
39 from the morgue 67 96
40 Today is my birthday 63 102
40 Socialist Aotearoa 63 91
40 Unity Blog 63 83
43 Humanitarian Chronicle 61 88
44 Goings on at the Madbush Farm 60 77
45 Bibliophilia 53 76
45 Glenview 9 53 74
47 Media Fetish 51 70
47 Mars 2 Earth 51 95
47 Rodney’s Aviation Ramblings 51 70
50 Webweaver’s world 49 58
51 Dad4justice 48 56
52 goNZo Freakpower Brains Trust 46 61
52 Pointless and adsurb 46 66
54 Derek’s blog 43 63
55 Anarchia 42 50
56 Family integrity 39 70
57 Otagosh 32 47
57 Aotearoa: A wider perspective 32 37
59 I am Johnny King 31 63
60 Samuel Dennis 30 35
60 Journey to a mini me 30 50
60 Manaia Kindergarten 30 51
63 Put up thy Sword! 29 37
63 ICT Teaching and Learning 29 39
65 Anna’s blog/pterodaustro dreams 27 45
66 Blessed Economist 26 31
67 KiwiSmith Family 24 35
68 Joe Hendren 23 28
69 No excuses. Just write 22 31
70 Green is good 20 24
71 The Thorndon Bubble 17 27
71 At home with Rose 17 23
73 Phrenic Philosophy 16 21
73 Hooked on thinking 16 36
73 Emeth Elethia 16 32
73 ICT in Early Education 16 23
77 Tha Fatal Paradox 14 22
78 Rob’s Blockhead Blog 13 16
78 Toni Twiss 13 20
80 Surfr 12 25
80 Life is not a race to be finished first 12 18
82 Prior Knowledge 11 11
82 jo russ photo diary 11 31
82 Thousand sketches 11 16
85 creative voice 10 22
85 Neil Stockley 10 24
87 Relatively science 9 12
87 Deep(ish) Thought 9 19
87 Tangled up in purple 9 12
87 Home School Nations – NZ 9 13
91 I’m a bit of a geek 8 10
92 Migrating fish swim 7 11
92 Pt England Scribes 7 10
94 Discovery Time 6 8
94 Nathanael Baker 6 7
94 Korero Pt England 6 15
97 Dragonsinger 5 7
97 Island in the Pacific 5 12
97 Mad Young Thing 5 5
97 Sleeping with books 5 8
101 ObservatioNZ 4 4
102 SageNZ 3 3
102 Think Beyond 3 4
102 The Sidestrip 3 4
102 Things I like to do 3 4
102 ICTPD 3 5
102 Rest Area 300 m 3 5
102 Heidi’s Ocean blog 3 4
102 Easter Island blog 3 5
110 Clint Heine and Friends 2 2
110 Beehive Buzz 2 3
110 Lolly Scramble 2 4
110 Digital learning 2 5
110 Virtual North 2 3
115 Here I stand 1 1
115 The Home Office 1 1
115 The quiet world project 1 1
115 Bill Bennett 1 1
115 Boganette 1 2
120 Rambling Reflections 0 0
Ulearn News no data no data
Swritches no data no data
Canvassing for opinion no data no data
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The Galileo Lectures Ken Perrott Oct 23

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I usually enjoy the NZ Royal Society Lectures. This year we have had the Galileo Lectures to mark the International Year of Astronomy.

Here are the description of the six lectures, together with links to download the podcasts. Taken from: Radio New Zealand National : Lectures & Forums : The Galileo Lectures.

The Galileo Lecture series is produced by Radio New Zealand National in partnership with the Royal Society of New Zealand. It celebrates the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since Galileo used a telescope to view the solar system and transformed our understanding of Earth’s place in the Universe.

Galileo Lecture 1 – Galileo’s Telescope1_Ruth_Barton_Hamilton_200
Associate Professor Ruth Barton, The University of Auckland

When Galileo turned his telescope to the stars he saw spots on the sun, mountains on the moon, and moons about Jupiter. The moons of Jupiter, he wrote, proved the glory of the Medici name (and this gained him the position of mathematician and philosopher at the Medici court), but did they prove the Copernican theory that the Earth moved in circles around the Sun as Galileo claimed?

Recorded in Hamilton.

(duration: 43′42″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis MP3
Galileo Lecture 2 – The mystery of the first stars2_Grant_Christie_Auckland
Dr Grant Christie MNZM, Research Astronomer, Stardome Observatory.

The first stars formed when the Universe was less than 2% of its current age. At this early epoch the conditions were very different to those that exist now so exactly how these stars got started and what they were like remains a major unsolved problem in astronomy. Can we probe this far back in time and shed light on how the first stars formed?

Recorded at Auckland’s Stardome.

(duration: 43′16″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis MP3
Galileo Lecture 3 – The search for other planets, other life3_Alan_Gilmore_Lake_Tekapo
Alan Gilmore, Mt John Observatory, University of Canterbury

The realisation that stars are just distant suns, like our own, led to speculation about the existence of other planets, and other life forms. The first extra-solar planet orbiting a ‘normal’ star was detected in 1996. More than 300 planets have now been identified, and many have been discovered by New Zealand astronomers. But the chances of finding one which has the pre-requisites for life are slim, and even if we do find another in ’The Goldilocks Zone’, the possibility of travelling to it is as yet out of the question. Earth is a very special place indeed.

Recorded in Tekapo

Alan Gilmore has been resident superintendent of the Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo since 1996. An amateur astronomer since his school days, he began professional astronomy at the Carter Observatory, Wellington, in 1970. He is involved in many observing programmes at Mt John, including, with wife Pam Kilmartin, a long running programme to track near Earth asteroids

(duration: 41′06″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis MP3
Galileo Lecture 4 – Comets and asteroids: clues to our origin and threats to our survival4_Jack_Baggaley_Chch
Professor Jack Baggaley FRAS FRSNZ, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Canterbury

Comets and asteroids provide us with vital clues as to how the solar system was born. Small sized asteroids may reach the ground as meteorites, sometimes producing impact craters or exploding dramatically. Impacts by large comets and asteroids are a very real threat to the survival of mankind. There are international programmes with networks of dedicated telescopes to map the positions of these objects and forecast their future trajectories and approaches to the Earth.

Recorded in Christchurch

(duration: 40′53″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis MP3
Galileo Lecture 5 – Neutrinos: Ghosts of the UniverseJenni-Adams
Dr Jenni Adams, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Canterbury.

More than 50 trillion solar neutrinos pass through your body every second! Abundant but elusive, these particles have truly amazing properties and provide a new way to look out at objects in our galaxy and beyond.

(duration: 52′08″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis MP3

Galileo Lectures 6 – The Square Kilometre Array

Brian Boyle, Director, Australian National Telescope Facility

Stretching over a continent and comprised of over 5000 antennas, the Square Kilometre Array is proposed to be the world’s largest radio telescope and one of the most ambitious pieces of scientific infrastructure ever built. It will address some of the key questions of 21st century astronomy and physics and act as a scientific icon for generations to come. New Zealand has the opportunity to join in Australia’s Bid to host this multi-billion dollar telescope.

Recorded in Wellington.

(duration: 41′42″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis MP3

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Lamenting loss of funerals Ken Perrott Oct 22

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atheist-heavenSo Ed Tomlinson, a UK Church of England vicar, has been ripping in to secular funerals. He himself is looking forward to the “gorgeous liturgy of the requiem mass. . . . Whereas the best our secularist friends (and those they dupe) can hope for is a poem from nan combined with a saccharine message from a pop star before being popped in the oven with no hope of resurrection.”

The TimesOnline says Tomlinson is the “vicar of St Barnabas’s Church in Tunbridge Wells, a ‘Forward in Faith’ parish that rejects the ministry of women priests.”

Sour grapes

Sounds like sour grapes to me. Because he also laments that “priests are no longer in demand.” “It is another significant sign of how Britain is becoming an increasingly secular society.” Funerals are being placed “in the hands of humanist provider(s).”

He claims to see a positive side to this:

“And yet there is a positive side to this if I am honest. In the last few years it has become painfully obvious that many families I have conducted funerals for have absolutely no desire for any Christian content whatsoever. I have then stood at the Crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with ‘I did it my way’ blaring out across the speakers! To be brutally honest I can think of a hundred better ways of spending my time as a priest on God’s earth. What is the point of my being present if spiritually unwanted?”

But he reveals what are probably the real reasons for his regrets – which are no doubt shared by others in his profession:

“I am saddened to discover yet another arena of life in which the church is moved from the centre to the margins. I am equally troubled that pastoral care is being left in the hands of those whose main aim is to make money. And I am further concerned that an opportunity for evangelism is slipping through our fingers.”

We want genuine funerals

Well, Ed, I think evangelism is one of the reason for the growing trend towards secular funerals. People have got fed up with ceremonies full of irrelevant supernatual mythology, paternalistic assumptions about the “faith” of the mourners (and the deceased) and the lack of any real concern or respect for the deceased. Today we want to have a genuine celebration of that life.

Many of us now have a mature attitude towards death and find the appeals to a supernatural afterlife more disrespectful than comforting. I have certainly found today’s “secular” funerals far more genuine than the old religious ones. They provide more opportunity for the celebration of the life being remembered. And the ceremonies are therefore often more beautiful and moving for this.

It’s also a bit rich for Tomlinson to charge that humanist and other secular celebrants “main aim is to make money.” This coming from a representative of an institution that always has its hands out, that invents supernatural demands for their congregation to tithe and cynically claims tax exemption for their religious income and work.

My own funeral

Perhaps its a sign of age, but I have thought about what I would like for my own funeral. I have no objection to undertakers, caterers, etc. being paid appropriately. However, no priest or other religious official, or their church,  will get a cent from my estate. Nor will any political party. There will not be any official role for those organisations. I have no wish for such a cynical use of this occasion.

And, yes, I hope it will be beautiful and moving. I want the music to include pieces from Verdi’s Requium Mass. Sure, it has a religious content – but should we reject great music, operas, etc., because they are about fairy tales, the Greek gods, etc? It is beautiful music, part of a culture that belongs to all of us – religious and non-religious alike. Surely that is reinforced by the fact that Verdi himself was a non-believer.

And, perhaps I will even ask for it to be held in a beautiful building – like an old church. After all, I have helped to finance these building through my taxes over the years. And, again they are part of our culture.

See also:

Planning ahead
These posts from ed Tomlinson’s blog:
The death of death…
Clarification on funerals
Dealing with the press
A Humanist response: BHA defends humanist funerals

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Empathy’s origins Ken Perrott Oct 21

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Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harmony (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307407764
ISBN-13: 978-0307407764


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This book might ruffle the feathers of the biblical literalists. They will find themselves challenged on two grounds:

  1. We can explain human feelings of empathy, sympathy and the like naturally, without resort to divine causes;
  2. Ideas of a special or divinely ordained character for humans, of human exceptionalism, are not supported by the evidence.

Mind you, Frans de Waal points out, there are plenty of non-literalists, even active scientists, who feel threatened by the undermining of human exceptionalism.

On the other hand there will be plenty of pet owners and animal lovers who will nod knowingly while reading this book. They will recognise their own experiences of often ’human like’ behaviour displayed by non-human animals

Natural origins of human empathy

De Waal describes how empathy, sympathy and the predisposition to fairness have arisen naturally during our evolution. And these are not recent adaptions unique to humans. They have much earlier origins.

He also describes these intuitions as arising subconsciously. Not relying on any cognitive process they are an automated response over which we have little control. However, we will often resort to rationalisation to provide ’explanations’ for these intuitions.

We have a natural commitment to others and sensitivity to their feelings and predicaments. In the past this was often credited to divine causes but now we study it scientifically. Despite this, resistance to scientific investigation of human empathy still exists — and is not always religiously motivated.

Non-human empathy

This resistance is even stronger with other animals. Many people feel threatened by the idea that we share many of these ’humane’ emotions and intuitions with our close cousins.

On the other hand some animal lovers may go too far in equating these feelings in humans and other animals. This commitment to others, our sensitivity, is not just a human trait. But, maybe we do it more fully. As well as providing examples showing similarities between humans and non-humans the author also provides examples illustrating the differences.

Optimistic interpretation of biology

Evolution of empathy is obviously a positive feature of our development. As De Waal points out this realisation is a counter to the often negative, inhumane connotations placed on natural selection. The portrayal of nature as ’red in tooth and claw.’ We can see our biology and evolution as a process for good.

Of course this is not new. Charles Darwin himself discussed the evolutionary origins and influence of human sympathy in his work The Descent of Man.’ But it is only in recent years that these positive intuitions and feelings, in non-human animals as well as humans, have begun to receive proper research attention.

We can attribute this neglect partially to religious influence. To the idea of human exceptionalism, the existence of a human soul. De Waal speculates that this expceptionalism may have arisen especially in the Judean/Christian religions which separate humanity from nature. That these religions may have developed that attitude because they arose in regions where humans were isolated from animals (like other primates) which work like us.

The book is easy to read. Use of stories and anecdotes, rather than presenting heavily referenced reports of scientific findings, helps make the material accessible. Some readers may therefore feel the book lacks authority. However, there is an extensive notes section at the back of the book, and a list of references by chapter. This should satisfy readers who want to dig deeper.

I enjoyed the last chapter — ’Crooked Timber’ because it provided a positive ending. It shows how biology and evolution can provide a basis for a more positive society — and helps counter the use of ’social Darwinism’ to justify a selfish society.

Empathy as a basis for a humane society

De Waal portrays empathy in humans as multi-layered — like a Russian Doll. At the core is the ancient tendency to match the emotional state of others. Evolution has built around this core more sophisticated capacities such as feeling concern for others and adopting their viewpoint. This enables us to undertake targeted helping and to organise society more humanely.

He says:

’I derive great optimism from empathy’s evolutionary antiquity. It makes it a robust trait that will develop in virtually every human being so that society can count on it and try to foster and grow it. It is a human universal.’

We are prone to concentrating on the negative sides of humanity, our inclination to hatred and violence, deception and exploitation. So Frans de Waal’s perspective is welcome. True, many of the negative features we share with non-human animals may be developed to a greater or more devastating effect in human. But this may also be true of our positive features.

’The role of compassion is society is therefore not just one of sacrificing time and money to relieve the plight of others, but also of pushing a political agenda that recognises everyone’s dignity.’

And finally:

’But one instrument we do have available, and that greatly enriches our thinking, has been selected over the ages, meaning that it has been tested over and over with regard to its survival value. That is our capacity to connect to and understand others and make their situation our own, the way the American people did while watching Katrina victims and Lincoln did when he came eye to eye with shackled slaves

To call upon this inborn capacity can only be to any society’s advantage.’

See also:
Interview with Frans de Waal: The Science of Empathy (Download MP3)
Chimpanzees Help Each Other upon Request

Video: Dogs can be good without god!

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Galileo, Darwin and the new enlightenment Ken Perrott Oct 19

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Here are two interesting talks in Wellington next Sunday?

1.00 pm to 4.00 pm, Sunday 25 October 2009
Mezzanine Floor, Wellington Central Library

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New bird designed! Ken Perrott Oct 19

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An early blueprint for the new bird species

I have always found arguments from analogy very weak. Especially as they are usually allied with strong preconceived beliefs and amount to nothing more than attempts to “prove” those beliefs.

Typical is the “argument from design” for the “proof” of existence of gods. You know – Rev. Paley and his discovery of a watch on the heath? It’s amazing how many of the anti-scientific arguments used by today’s creationists follow the same lines.

A huge elephant in the creationist design room is their comparison of living forms with inanimate manufactured objects. “A watch has a watchmaker therefore an animal must also have a designer/maker.” Similarly the current intelligent design (ID) proponents who insist that a biological cell is an intricate machine – hence it must have a designer/creator. This approach is so inappropriately mechanical. One could never come to understand living forms, or their origins, by insisting on treating them like inanimate machines or objects.

Of course the design argument does raise the question of how and where this design, and the inevitable creation, of live animals occurs (or occured) and where the animals are (were) manufactured. You can’t have it both ways – claim “design” and “creation” and then just ignore those events.

But the approach does provide some humour. Remember the manufacturing plant for planets in Douglas Adams‘ “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy“? Now the satirical web site The Onion has a spoof on God’s creation of a new bird species. Dressed up like the reporting of a new model of car (see God Introduces New Bird ).

Have a look at the article – here is a short extract from the advertising blurb for this new bird:

“Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, prepare thine eyes for the most exciting line of avian wildlife in millennia,” God announced as He released an estimated 14 million first-run models into the important bird markets of North America, Australia, and Eurasia. “This new bird has it all: slicker wings, a more streamlined beak, better-than-ever capacity for beautiful song. Plus, all of the grace and majesty you’ve come to expect from the Eternal Creator of Life Itself.”

“The bird is back,” God continued, His booming voice parting the very heavens. “And baby, it’s never looked better.”


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BCA libels Simon Singh? Ken Perrott Oct 16

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Update to A victory for Simon Singh.

Apparently the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) have given way to emotion in a public commen on Simon Singh’s small legal victory. In a press release (see BCAStatement 14 10 09) they claim that “the BSA was maliciously attacked by Dr Singh in the Guardian article.” Jack of Kent comments that this amounts to defamation and Singh could now counter sue (see BCA Defame Simon Singh). The BCA obviously realised this because they quietly withdrew and rewrote their press release (see BCA Statement 15 10 09).

This development could mean the BCA has drastically weakened their case.


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