The Story of Civilization, Part Two

I’ve been recently learning from a very well researched tome that the reasons for the discrepancy in the development of civilizations, over time, around the world, was, contrary to popular opinion, the result of factors that had little or nothing to do with human capabilities.

The so-called cradle of civilization, the fertile crescent in the near east which was the location of the earliest known significant civil progress had the benefits of a variety of domestic-able food plants and large animals which provided the means to create sedentary communities able to diversify energies toward technological developments: a considerable head-start on the rest of the world.

So called backward peoples like the Australian Aborigines remained hunter/ gatherers into modern times because, to a great extent, the lands they occupy don’t accommodate farming and the indigenous fauna isn’t domestic-able. The knowledge these people have acquired, though, makes it possible for them to thrive in an exceedingly harsh environment.

It would appear that humankind has survived to this point in time through a common intelligence and adaptability. Now, if we can all just recognize our mutual worth perhaps we can survive a bit longer.




How to Solve the World’s Problems Part One

I’ve been reading a very interesting assessment of the religious conflicts that have been fomenting around the world these days (well, actually, religious conflicts may be the lone absolute all civilizations have realized ad infinitum).

The problem, that has developed into terroristic behaviors according to my very credible source, is disenfranchisement: a lack of opportunity to voice grievances by participating in a political dialogue. Giving marginalized peoples the opportunity to be part of the legitimate social/political structure has been shown to reduce extremist behaviors and even groups with fairly hostile inclinations, people who view non-believers as apostate or heretical, will, given the opportunity, most likely work within a legitimate structure.

So, perhaps, rather than preparing for a cosmic war, opening dialogue, developing mutual trust, bringing the outliers into the fold is a superior philosophical stance. Besides, who can really know which side God is on?



The Story of Civilization, Part One

I’ve been reading that after the Big Bang, as life emerged, along with the amoebic beginnings of plants and animals, viruses began their evolutionary development. Then, much later on, as animals became domesticated by the first farmers, cows, pigs and such became hosts to booming viral colonies which had realized living animal cells were a great promoter of the viral life-style. (The animals, of course, being less than discriminating consumers of water, were readily available for viral habitation). Soon, these early viruses found their way to human hosts. The early farmers being unwary, often invited their domesticated animals into their abodes, which, it’s pretty obvious, wasn’t so good for mankind.

In fact, early epidemics of measles, plague, small pox, influenza and such wiped out large populations, the survivors having the genetic wherewithal to  pass on immunity to their progeny. So, to jump ahead a few millennia, the early farmers became explorers, sailing the globe seeking peoples to conquer and exploit, a task made considerably easier as they passed on the aforementioned deadly diseases to folks without immunity.

This whole scenario rather points out the geographic advantages (animals to domesticate and such) of the earliest farmers, who, on the positive side passed on their immunities to most of us. Still, it would seem to be sensible to keep a reasonable distance from the family dog: he/she may not kill you but knowing what the animal is inclined to eat and drink, disease is in the offing.  And, I don’t know about you but I’m getting a flu shot.

Our Primitive Brains

I’ve been reading that a significant part of the reason for our contemporary intellectual disconnectedness is due to our primitive brains: that our brains evolved to deal with empirical issues like finding food and avoiding predators and social skills like recognizing malevolence and benevolence and working with others for mutual benefit.

The problem seems to be that our pragmatic brain isn’t yet equipped to deal with the abstract knowledge science is providing these days leading to a denial by more than a few folks of the legitimacy of discoveries we could be benefitting from regarding ecological health, stem-cell cures and the nature and fragility of the universe.

Our primitive intuitive natures lead us to global warming denial, destructive fossil fuel extraction and heavy-footprint product production. A recent president went so far as to refer to ‘fuzzy science’ in condemnation of findings unfavorable to economic growth.

So, our intuitive selves tend to lead us toward the supernatural as explanation for the ills and inconveniences we would all like to overcome, and are to blame for the political motivation to slow down important innovation. Scientific discoveries shouldn’t require the faith of a believer. We all need to do a better job grasping the truth offered by our most innovative thinkers.


I’ve been reading about certain 19th Century philosophers, William James and John Dewey among them, who developed a philosophic procedure, pragmatism, to deal with the disconnect between the growing validity of scientific discoveries and long held religious conceptions many folks embraced at the time.

Pragmatism was, and still is I guess, about practicality. Acting on an idea, empirical or religious, will produce either a result that proves to be personally useful, one of practical applicability, or will prove itself useless and disposable. The ‘truthfulness’ of the idea is thus established.

I guess it’s pretty clear that being practical, you know, for the most part, is important in decision making regarding social functioning and earning a living. It seems to me important, though, to hang on to idealisms sometimes no matter how trivial or fantastical they may be. Imaginings need to be limitless and be free to reach beyond any notion of functionality.

James and Dewey realized we live in a steadily evolving, transformational world. We need to spend time seeking the unknown in all its potential absurdness. Who knows, such investigations may lead to useful insights that will counter unwanted future evils.

The Dangers of Religious Fundamentalism

I’ve been reading that one of the primary drivers of religious fundamentalism is the sense of feeling under siege: the opposition, anyone holding a perspective contrary to the orthodox view, is identified not simply as apostate but as the enemy: immoral and evil.

With the firm belief God is on their side, fundamentalists embrace a world view that may include cosmic battle against the forces of evil.  Fundamentalists convince themselves they are the chosen ones of God which sometimes leads to nationalistic fervor and an aggressive political stance and may even include the idea of replacing secular government and constitution with the tenets of their religious beliefs. They evangelize, convinced anyone not a believer is doomed to eternal Hell, which I suppose might be considered somewhat altruistic ( the evangelizing that is), if the rigidity of their demanded beliefs weren’t quite so outrageous and their methods of conversion less oppressive. These folks take their sacred writings literally, a gift from God, inerrant, any metaphorical allusions lost on their determined black/white perspective. So, the fundamentalists flex their muscles in tense confrontation, waiting for the sign from God signaling Armageddon.

Whew! This all might make exciting TV drama if it weren’t so real.




Where’s the Nuance?

I’ve been reading about the most incredible difficulties those individuals of unorthodox thinking had around the turn of the 19th century (that is 1890’s to 1910’s or so). Public awareness of ideas questioning religious dogmas, racial inequities, subjugation of women and the like, often resulted in ostracization for any mindful individual who voiced such thoughts. Condemnation by a powerful fundamentalist clergy and demonizing by the mainstream press were powerful disincentives to speak out and those courageous enough to do so were often censored or ignored.

It must have been really hard to have a creative mind back then. New ideas were often seen as blasphemous or heretical by the majority; absolute truth ruled the day and made it easier, I suppose, for those who didn’t want to think too hard about the big questions.

These days it seems the majorities, consuming as they do their preferred sound bites, butt heads pretty much on a daily basis. Knowing their own truth leaves small room for considering the complexities, gray areas or subtleties of today’s issues, leaving free thinkers without much of a voice.

Some things never change, I guess, but resistance to free thought can be pretty disturbing sometimes.

Spiritual Common Ground

Having spent some time recently visiting a Christian pilgrimage site of some considerable significance to believers (and history buffs as well), it became apparent to me the penitents amongst the crowds stood out. It was pretty clear there is a deep emotional engagement, a heart-felt belief in the Christian dogma many of the pilgrims feel and adhere to.

It got me thinking about the sort of commitment other spiritual engagements require of their followers if their followers can be expected to remain followers. Other than Reformed Judaism which appears to be based pretty much on cultural tradition most other religious endeavors expect, if not an emotional commitment, an intellectual discipline whereby the metaphysical can be approached, the value of which for the honest participant is cultivation of a groundedness that is helpful in seeing through and beyond the petty and not so petty distractions life presents with considerable constancy.

Problems tend to arise when differences in doctrinal beliefs lead followers to deny the legitimacy of other traditions. It would be good, I think, if more adherents would focus on the common rather than the different and set aside the arrogance of an assumed superiority.



Social Darwinism

I’ve been reading lately about the strange and self-serving developments that followed Charles Darwin’s determinations of biological evolution. There were certain late 19th century thinkers that found it advantageous to apply the evolutionary theory to the social milieu: that the ‘fittest survivors’ referred to those most able to exploit the economic system, that material wealth meant social progress, and unimpeded pursuit of capital gains would lead to a better world, in the interests of which capital would not be wasted to shore up the least able, and, in fact, eugenic cleansing would provide a superior ultimate outcome.

In opposition or at least counter-point to such an hard-hearted position were those who saw man as a social animal, empathetic to his fellows and reliant on community to provide a reasonable, happy and successful life for all. These altruistic sorts saw social solidarity as evolutionary, naturally evolved over millennia, evidenced by primitive, tribal man whose very survival required social care and cooperation.

Anyway, the majority of folks found well-reasoned logic in both of these fairly divergent positions, the result being a populous which has since embraced philosophical contradictions between our natural propensity for empathy toward our fellows, our common humanity, and the conviction we’re not all equal, some of us being morally and intellectually superior.

We can only hope that, at some point in the not too distant future, recognition of our mental incapacities will be realized and we’ll come to our senses.


Despair in Florence

I was speaking with a very insightful young Florentine during my recent travels. He commented that the state of American politics (of which I must admit to being a bit embarrassed) isn’t surprising to most Europeans given the populist anti-immigrant goings-on in Italy and throughout Europe. “What we don’t understand about the Americans,” he said, “is the guns.”

This got me thinking about a Goethe quote I ran across recently that goes: ‘There are times when all consolation is base and it’s our duty to despair’, which resonates, no doubt, but I have to wonder how much value there is in despairing, you know, all by itself.