March 1996

Feminist Economics

Nilufer Cagatay, assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah, discussed the feminist movement at the February meeting of the Humanists of Utah. Professor Cagatay has participated in several international women’s and population conferences, including last year’s conference in Beijing.

She summarized the development of the global feminist movement since the 1985 meeting in Copenhagen to the 1990 meeting in Nairobi and now, last year, to the conference in Beijing. A decade ago, conference participants divided into two camps: feminists from northern, industrialized countries and feminists from southern, third-world, developing countries. The former tended to build “lists” of what needed to be done to improve the lot of women world wide. The latter objected, noting that their more affluent sisters did not really know what life is like in the third world.

Examining the feminist movement from a purely economic point of view tends to bring the two sides closer together. For example, domestic labor, unless contracted out, is not considered “work” in figuring a country’s GNP or other economic indicators. This makes it harder for women to get credit because they have no collateral, even though it has been shown that they are generally more likely to repay loans than men.

Since the 1980’s a new philosophy has come to dominate economics. Market forces are allowed to determine what is best for all of us. This concept, championed by President Reagan, has further disenfranchised women world wide. The markets have no concept of what people need, only what they will consume. When one product has reached saturation, a new need is invented so that a product can be developed and marketed to fill the new, artificial need. Professor Cagatay was not willing to tell us what needed to be done politically, only that we all need to work together and strive to improve the lot of not only women, but of all humanity.

–Wayne Wilson

Who Discovered Evolution?

It may seem unusual to include Leonardo da Vinci in a list of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. Leonardo was and is best known as an artist, the creator of such masterpieces as the Mona LisaMadonna of the Rocks, and The Last Supper. Yet Leonardo was far more than a great artist: he had one of the best scientific minds of his time. He made painstaking observations and carried out research in fields ranging from architecture and civil engineering to astronomy, and from anatomy and zoology to geography, geology and paleontology. In the words of his biographer Giorgio Vasari: “The most heavenly gifts seem to be showered on certain human beings. Sometimes supernaturally, marvelously, they all congregate in one individual.” This was seen and acknowledged by all men in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, who had an indescribable grace in every effortless act and deed. His talent was so rare that he mastered any subject to which he turned his attention. He might have been a scientist if he had not been so versatile.

Leonardo knew well the rocks and fossils (mostly Cenozoic mollusks) found in his native north Italy. No doubt he had ample opportunity to observe them during his service as an engineer and artist at the court of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, from 1482 to 1499: Vasari wrote that “Leonardo was frequently occupied in the preparation of plans to remove mountains or to pierce them with tunnels from plain to plain.” He made many observations on mountains and rivers, and he grasped the principle that rocks can be formed by deposition of sediments by water, while at the same time the rivers erode rocks and carry their sediments to the sea, in a continuous grand cycle. He wrote: “The stratified stones of the mountains are all layers of clay, deposited one above the other by the various floods of the rivers. In every concavity at the summit of the mountains we shall always find the divisions of strata in the rocks.”

In Leonardo’s day there were several hypotheses of how it was that shells and other living creatures were found in rocks on the tops of mountains. Some believed the shells to have been carried there by the Biblical Flood; others thought that these shells had grown in the rocks. Leonardo had no patience with either hypothesis, and refuted both using his careful observations. Concerning the second hypothesis, he wrote that “such an opinion cannot exist in a brain of much reason; because here are the years of their growth, numbered on their shells, and there are large and small ones to be seen which could not have grown without food, and could not have fed without motion–and here they could not move.” There was every sign that these shells had once been living organisms. What about the Great Flood mentioned in the Bible? Leonardo doubted the existence of a single worldwide flood, noting that there would have been no place for the water to go when it receded. He also noted that “if the shells had been carried by the muddy deluge they would have been mixed up, and separated from each other amidst the mud, and not in regular steps and layers–as we see them now in our time.” He noted that rain falling on mountains rushed downhill, not uphill, and suggested that any Great Flood would have carried fossils away from the land, not towards it. He described sessile fossils such as oysters and corals, and considered it impossible that one flood could have carried them 300 miles inland, or that they could have crawled 300 miles in the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood.

How did those shells come to lie at the tops of mountains? Leonardo’s answer was remarkably close to the modern one: fossils were once-living organisms that had been buried at a time before the mountains were raised: “it must be presumed that in those places there were sea coasts, where all the shells were thrown up, broken, and divided. Where there is now land, there was once ocean.” It was possible, Leonardo thought, that some fossils were buried by floods–this idea probably came from his observations of the floods of the Arno River and other rivers of north Italy–but these floods had been repeated, local catastrophes, not a single Great Flood. To Leonardo da Vinci, as to modern paleontologists, fossils indicated the history of the Earth, which extends far beyond human records. As Leonardo himself wrote:

“Since things are much more ancient than letters, it is no marvel if, in our day, no records exist of these seas having covered so many countries…But sufficient for us is the testimony of things created in the salt waters, and found again in high mountains far from the seas.”

–Found on the Internet searching for “evolution”

Notes From an American Humanist at the Atheist Conference in India

[We should not] let religion have a monopoly on artistic fantasy, spirituality, ceremonies and celebrations (including music and dance), moral instruction of the young, or congregational life. We post-religious folks have a lot to celebrate. For instance, solstices and equinoxes are the hallmarks of the sources of the sustenance of life and ecologically relevant.

And atheists should make an effort not to over-intellectualize our post-religious outlook. It’s a simple fact of life that some people are inclined by nature to be rational, while others-including many who are ready to be post-religious in their beliefs and actions-are more inclined to be spiritual. In our organization and in our way of life, let us make room for all the good atheists who are temperamentally more poetic than scientific.

Another fact of life we ought to acknowledge is that religious fundamentalism and fanaticism are now waxing strong and, indeed, surging forward like a dangerous wave in several parts of the world. I have in mind not only Islamic countries like Algeria, Egypt and Turkey, and not only the political uses in India of Hindu fundamentalism, but also in my homeland (the USA) the onslaught of Christian fundamentalist intrusions into libraries, schools, medical clinics, and electoral politics.

This is just one example of the several ways in which we atheists need, I think, to emphasize responsibility as the handmaiden of freedom. Perhaps atheists all around the world, and especially in affluent countries such as my own, can take a lesson in this regard from the Atheist Center here in Vijayanwada, which has by its stream of constructive activities made so clear its ethical approach to life. The object of many of the Atheist Center’s projects is not to “dispense charity” but rather inculcate the self-empowerment of the downtrodden.

I would like to say, most emphatically, that many explicitly atheist organizations urgently need a far better balance (than they now have) between work and talk. Rather than envisaging grandiose objectives, however worthy, let each atheist individual or small group put into effect a constructive project that seems to be within its means to address. Just do it!

At the same time, I think that atheist ethics should be explicit and constructive. In the USA, for instance, where so many children are being raised nowadays in fatherless families, it is very important to advocate strongly the rearing and educating of children in a family structure as a fundamental aspect of our ethos.

Finally, I would like to recommend an ever greater degree of cooperation among atheists and humanist organizations, building constructive coalitions through our positive efforts.

–Joe Gerstein
Humanist Association of Massachusetts

Alone With Problems

Is there a way to live our lives without having all the problems that go along with it? If there is a way, most of us would like to know what it is. Believers talk of rewards in the hereafter, but we humanists must struggle with everyday life and accept the here and now for our reward. Such is the way of reality in the real world.

A factor in life is that superstitions stand directly in the way of understanding our problems, just as they did centuries ago. Belief in mystics must result in a distorted view. One cannot see clearly with a distorted view.

I don’t believe we are civilized, in spite of our advances in science. We are still savages at heart and have not moved any closer to solving our real problems any more than our distant relatives did. We’ll get nowhere walking around singing angelic tunes, bowing our heads in submission, and praying to a non-existing god. Humanists hold up their heads, look at their problems, and try to find a way to solve them. It’s not the easiest way, it’s the only way.

Only as ignorance has given way to fact have problems been overcome. Many otherwise intelligent people still treat misfortune as punishment meted out by an angry god upon a throne, to his sinful subjects. A god that they have been told to fear. If we could redirect that fear to solve our problems (without divine help), the world would be a lot better off. Can we supplement fear with mutual aid and understanding of others’ problems and eliminate the fears that have heretofore shaped our destinies? Do we really want to solve other people’s problems?

These are the questions that challenge you and me in a troubled world. We need each other to have any success at all. Alone we are nothing.

–Russ Roehm
From the Torch
Newsletter of the Arizona Secular Humanists

Is the American Government Too Powerful?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Humanism and the Paradox of Politics,” written by Michael C. Milam, published in the November-December, 1995, issue of The Humanist was the subject of our February meeting. The group made the following observations:

Thomas Jefferson favored a weak central government, power in the hands of individuals, and strong states’ rights. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, did not have much faith in the people; he favored a strong central government. The Greek Way by George Hamilton sheds light on the question posed by the conflicting views of Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. This book concerns Athens, democracy, and freedom for the individual. Humanists who are thoughtful and serious about this question face the dilemma of wanting the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, and the minorities to have equal opportunities, but they see it happening only through a strong government. There is a conflict in our minds as to what we really favor, a rugged individualism or a central government that forces equality.

Must this question boil down to an either/or solution, or can there be a combination of both alternatives? Actually an admixture of the alternatives seems to be what the American philosophy of government really boils down to. This blending has made our country strong. However, it is discouraging to see the massive debt the government has incurred. It is important to note that other advanced industrial governments have also incurred large debts, some in even greater proportion to their populations.

Milam indicates humanists ought to be the Socratic voice; we ought to be asking questions rather than answering them. While we can agree with that approach, we should also recognize that this proposition might be the easy way out. Instead of getting involved in the nitty-gritty and making things happen, we just sit back and ask questions. There needs to be a balance.

There seems to be a prevalent tendency to want rights, freedoms, and choices but not to accept the responsibility and the consequences. People do not want to pay taxes, but they expect government services. Because of the national debt, a large portion of our taxes go towards interest on the debt. The problem is complicated by the fact that the government juggles some of the money around, using funds earmarked for one service to pay for another.

We might ask ourselves, “What would the situation be like if the country were run just according to the prevailing conservative political philosophy in Utah?” The answer is frightening: theocracy might be the modus operandi. The dominant belief system does not deal with reality; there is a lack of understanding or even awareness of the larger problems of society. One of the most logical, reasonable, and practical things the Utah culture could do would be to establish day care centers in LDS ward houses, where the children in families in which both parents work could be safe, warm and in their own neighborhoods. The downside of this proposal is placing all of these children so directly under Mormon influence for so much time.