Category Archives: philosophy

Evolution as a path to emancipation

One of the worst canards that the creationists like to throw at Darwin is that his theory led directly to the 20th centuries atrocities of Stalin, Hitler and the holocaust. The most egregious and blatant example of this was in Ben Stein’s propaganda piece last year. I wonder what these people will have to say to this new perspective on what motivated Darwin to develop his theory of evolution and search for a common ancestor for all human beings, and other species:

“It makes one’s blood boil,” said Charles Darwin.

Not much outraged the gentle recluse, but the horrors of slavery could cost him a night’s sleep.

He was thinking of the whipped house boy and the thumbscrews used by old ladies in South America, atrocities he had witnessed on the Beagle voyage.

The screams stayed with him for life, but how much did they influence his life’s work?

Today you can still read of Darwin’s “eureka” moment when he saw the Galapagos finches.

Alas, his conversion to evolution wasn’t so simple, but it was much more interesting. It didn’t occur in the Galapagos, but probably on his arrival home.

And new evidence suggests that Darwin’s unique approach to evolution – relating all races and species by “common descent” – could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs.

[via BBC NEWS | Darwin’s twin track: ‘Evolution and emancipation’]

Darwin wrote with considerable feeling about his experiences among the natives of South America, as in this passage from “The Voyage of the Beagle:

“On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip…”

As the BBC article, and the new book, traces some of the less well-known aspects of his life-story, it is worth remembering that Darwin had another, less luminary mentor: a freed slave who taught him taxidermy and likely planted the seeds of longing for the lush tropical forests of distant South America five years before he got the famous invitation to join the Beagle’s voyage. During February-April 1826 young Charles spent a significant interlude with:

John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana, South America, taught Darwin taxidermy. The two of them often sat together for conversation, and John would fill Darwin’s head with vivid pictures of the tropical rain forests of South America. These pleasant conversations with John may have later inspired Darwin to dream about exploring the tropics. In any event, the taxidermy skills Darwin learned from him were indispensable during his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle in 1831.

Another remarkable chapter from the life of a remarkable man, who was way ahead of his times. Another reason to celebrate the man… but I’m not holding my breath for the creationists to stop vilifying him, much less join the celebration.

Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy

Today’s NYT features this excellent defense of science by Dennis Overbye. My favorite part:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Einstein seemed to echo this thought when he said, “I have never obtained any ethical values from my scientific work.” Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes.

Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

So the story goes.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.

Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers.

But nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant. There is always room for more data to argue over.

So if you’re going to get gooey about something, that’s not so bad.

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.”

Odd as it may seem coming from a proud participant of this “utopian anarchy“, I couldn’t agree more! The entire essay is well worth reading.

read more | digg story

The soul of a nerd

For some reason – maybe its a Sunday morning thing – I just remembered this amazing “sermon” by Neil de Grasse Tyson, about what it means to have a cosmic perspective on life. Perhaps it is the recent events in Mumbai that have me seeking a broader perspective. It was, after all, in Bombay that I discovered the cosmos, learning to restore and build telescopes, and training them on the cosmos, peering up through the city’s well-lit and dusty skies from the roof of the Institute of Science, a stone’s throw away from the Gateway of India and the Taj hotel. Perhaps my memory of those nights has been triggered by reading about the solidarity rally last week at the Taj, where the sight of lights coming on in the Taj carried such significance – for I’m sure we complained more than once about the damn lights at these hotels and monuments which stayed on all night, polluting the city’s nocturnal sky for us amateur urban astronomers! Whatever the reason, I’m glad I found this video again. And to Tyson, all I can say is “amen”!

Long live the One Straw Revolutionary

I learnt the sad news this morning (yet to be picked up by US media, and even Google News) that Masanobu Fukuoka, the pioneer of no-till agriculture, passed away on August 16, at the ripe old age of 95. His “One Straw Revolution”, a manifesto on natural farming, is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read on how humanity might live – and well – by learning how nature works, and working with nature rather than against it. As this article notes, Fukuoka arrived at very similar solutions to what later became popular as permaculture, but from a very different perspective:

It is remarkable that Fukuoka and Bill Mollison, working independently, on two different continents with entirely different environmental conditions should come up with such similar solutions to the question, “How can people on live this planet sustainably and in harmony with nature.” Both claim that the principles of their system can be adapted to any climatic area.

Mollison and Fukuoka took entirely different routes to get to essentially the same place. Permaculture is a design system which aims to maximize the functional connection of its elements. It integrates raising crops and animals with careful water management. Homes and other structures are designed for maximum energy efficiency. Everything is made to work together and evolve over time to blend harmoniously into a complete and sustainable agricultural system.

The key word here is design. Permaculture is a consciously designed system. The designer carefully uses his/her knowledge, skill and sensitivity to make a plan, then implement it. Fukuoka created natural farming from a completely different perspective.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that that notion of conscious design, and thus control over the system, has made permaculture more popular here in the west, while Fukuoka’s one-straw revolution, which I think was more deeply revolutionary because it asked us to do less rather than more, reverberated more strongly in India as elsewhere the east: he was awarded top regional honors in the form of the Ramon Magsasay Award (a regional equivalent of the Nobel prize) from the Philippines and the Deshikottam Award from Rabindranath Tagore‘s Visvabharati University.

Abandoning his western agricultural science training and, at age 25, giving up his job as a crop scientist, Fukuoka-sensei returned to his father’s farm, taking a different path to eventually arrive, as Larry Corn notes, at his simple, minimalist farming philosophy:

The idea for natural farming came to Fukuoka when he was about twenty five years old. One morning, as he sat at sunrise on a bluff overlooking Yokohama Bay, a flash of inspiration occurred. He saw that nature was perfect just as it is. Problems arise when people try to improve upon nature and use nature strictly for human benefit. He tried to explain this understanding to others, but when they could not understand he made a decision to return to his family farm. He decided to create a concrete example of his understanding by applying it to agriculture.

But where to begin? Fukuoka had no model to go by. “‘How about trying this? How about trying that?’ That is the usual way of developing agricultural technique. My way was different. ‘How about not doing this, and How about not doing that?’ – this was the path I followed. Now my rice growing is simply sowing seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me more than thirty years to reach this simplicity.”

The basic idea for his rice growing came to him one day when he happened to pass an old field which had been left unused and unplowed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on he stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the fall when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of plowing to get rid of weeds he learned to control them with a ground cover of white clover and a mulch of barley straw. Once he has tilted the balance slightly in favor of his crops Fukuoka interferes as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields.

Thus, in the end, he arrived at the same place as Mollison, his western (well Australian, but philosophically more western than eastern) counterpart pioneer of permaculture, who wrote:

Perhaps Fukuoka, in his book The One Straw Revolution, has best stated the basic philosophy of permaculture. In brief, it is philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.

Only from such philosophical convergences can we hope to find a truly sustainable future for our species on this planet. A planet which, sadly, is bereft today of the one-straw revolutionary.

Reality-based Intellectualist Liberal Elite – c’est Moi!

How’s this for independent confirmation of my elitist bona fides?

My Liberal Identity:

You are a Reality-Based Intellectualist, also known as the liberal elite. You are a proud member of what’s known as the reality-based community, where science, reason, and non-Jesus-based thought reign supreme.

Take the quiz at

Intellectualist elite I may be, but apparently not enough of a bastard yet! Gotta work some more on squirting blood from the eyes…

via Kevin, who got it from Bora, who got it from Mike

Losing religion can be easy and painless…

…and even a child can do it (presuming, of course, that the child has already been indoctrinated into some faith in the first place). Ricky Gervais, that British star of The Office (the original) and Extras shares the story of how he became enlightened at the wise old age of 8:

I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

It can be that simple, folks, although even the great squid loving flaming atheist PZ Myers of Pharyngula apparently took “years to ease my way out of the nonsense”. I’d have to say my own enlightenment didn’t take too long and was no pain at all once I’d discovered Darwin and Gould, Steinbeck and Zola in high school (yeah, ok, I was older than Gervais by then!).

Is it easier, I wonder, to go from growing up believing in a few hundred million gods to none at all, than to give up all that faith focused on just a single imaginary being?

The Age of American Unreason

Having grown up as a nerd in a culture where nerds didn’t generally get beaten up or bullied, but were often actually treated with respect (imagine that!), I’ve never fully understood the strong anti-intellectual streak in American culture, which seems so at odds with this country’s leadership in many areas of intellectual endeavor, notably in science. And these past few years of repthuglican rule have, of course, done little to dispel the fear that this country, this culture, is sinking deeper into a morass of anti-intellectualism and irrationality. And these fears many of us have been feeling, have apparently been part and parcel of US history, with the same curious brain-vs-brawn dichotomy of a culture dependent on the brain for all the hi-tech in daily life, including, especially, military tech, nevertheless willing to be subjugated by brawn, right from when kids start going to elementary school! Of course, I doubt the culture back home in India has remained the same, but I’d hate for it to get as ugly as it often seems here for those interested in leisurely pursuits of the intellect over more muscular pastimes.

Nevertheless, the depths of unreason being plumbed now, by those in positions of power in American politics and popular culture, are causing some serious alarm bells to be rung. Last year we had Al Gore lamenting The Assault on Reason, following Chris Mooney’s frontline reporting of the Republican War on Science. Now a heavier intellect has weighed in who should be worth watching on the telly tonight, when Bill Moyers interviews Susan Jacoby. Here’s an excerpt from the PBS website promoting tonight’s interview:

The notion that Americans aren’t often at the top of the ladder of erudition isn’t new. Every year the media points out how poorly U.S. kids perform in math and geography feats compared to many other nations’ school children. Susan Jacoby follows a notable scholarly tradition with her new book, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON. In 1964 historian Richard Hofstadter won the Pulizter Prize with his lament — ANTI-INTELLECUTALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE: ‘The national distaste for the intellectual appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival.’ Jacoby says of Hofstatder’s work now: ‘It is difficult to suppress the fear that the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy.’

And while you wait for your local PBS affiliate to air Bill Moyers Journal tonight, or for the video to be posted on their website, go watch Moyers’ last interview of Susan Jacoby, from back in 2004 when he had not yet been pushed out of PBS’ Now, and she had just published Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, another scholarly tome that should have received more attention than some of the other more notorious atheist books on the bestseller lists.

Jacoby’s new book is also featured in a New York Times essay entitled “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” that is well worth the read. And it happens to be the top most emailed story from the NYT right now, although no one seems to have blogged about it yet.

Meanwhile, I better go make some room on my nightstand for a couple of more volumes…