November 2008

Your Inner Fish

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group

by Craig Wilkinson, MD

Dr. Neil Shubin is a paleontologist and teaches comparative anatomy at the University of Chicago. He recently discovered a fossil that bridged the evolutionary gap between fish with fins and amphibians with limbs, also called “tetrapods.” It is a 375-million year old fossil discovered in the Canadian Arctic Islands. He named it Tiktaalik. It has scales like a fish, eyes on the dorsum of it’s head like early amphibians, and a “specialized fin” which looks externally like a fin but contains the rudimentary bones of a tetrapod arm. The humerus (upper arm), radius, ulna (lower arm), carpal bones (wrist), and phalanges (fingers) in early stages of evolution could be all be identified in the front “specialized fin.” It truly is a bridge fossil between fish with fins and amphibians with legs. Based on this find he began writing his most recent book, Your Inner Fish, A journey into the 3.5 billion year history of the Human Body.

In the beginning of the book he tells us about his lifelong interest in finding fossils that bridge the gap between fish and tetrapods. Tiktaalik is truly an intermediate fossil between fish and tetrapods and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Dr. Shubin. This fossil “gap” that for so long had been held out by the creationists as a fault with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has now been closed.

Next he explains how we can trace evolution not only in fossils but also with DNA. The molecular biologic history of life on earth is being uncovered at an amazing rate in the past few years. Using the fossil record Shubin explains that our hands resemble fossil fins; our heads are organized like those of long extinct fossil jawless fish. With our recent ability to accurately study, and rather quickly sequence, genomes, we have found that major parts of our genomes still look and function like those of worms and bacteria. For example, the same embryonic “sonic hedgehog” gene tells a fruit fly where to put its front limbs during development, tells a fish were on its body to place the front fins, and also tells the human embryo where to place our arms. In fact, the “sonic hedgehog gene” from a fish, if placed in the top part of the fruit fly head during embryonic development, will produce a fruit fly with a leg coming out of the top of its head, and vice versa. Other examples and evidence outline his case for existence of a “fish within us”: teeth in ancient jawless fish that evolved into modern mammary and sweat glands: and genes, which control our eyes and ears, that correspond directly to DNA found in primitive jellyfish.

Dr. Shubin is also taking a swipe at “creation science.” From the pages of his book it is clear that if a supreme being were responsible for creating life on Earth, from bacteria to humans, He, She, or It didn’t do it flawlessly. Far from being the perfectly crafted handiwork of a deity, our bodies are jerry-rigged patchworks of old bones, cells and genes bolted on to frameworks that creak and groan at every opportunity. Men suffer hernias because their spermatic cords, inherited from ancient fish ancestors, leave them susceptible to gut tissue spilling through muscle walls as the testicles descend from their internal position below the lungs in fish, through the abdominal wall, into their external position in the human scrotum. The evolution of the voice box left us susceptible to aspiration or “cafĂ© coronaries.” Our diaphragms and the position of the phrenic nerve leave us susceptible to hiccups. Amphibians do not have diaphragms and they use electric signals generated in their brain stems for rhythmic gill breathing. These leftover brain signals in humans are transmitted through the phrenic nerves to our evolved diaphragms and result in hiccups.

Humans have too many un-intelligent designs to be a product of “intelligent design.” We shouldn’t be surprised, says Shubin, “We were not designed rationally, but are products of a convoluted evolutionary history.”

The Ethics of Economy

At October’s general meeting, Dr. Michael Minch, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University, spoke eloquently and knowledgeably about The Ethics of Economy. It was not possible to include all of his remarks In the print version of the Utah Humanist ;but here we can include the ideas and data that I think you might find intriguing, and possibly, a little disturbing. From my own studies into poverty, I found a stunning figure: Each day, Americans eat roughly 200 billion more calories than needed–enough to feed 80 million people.

–Sarah Smith

An economy is an order of exchange. Such an order can be based on various presuppositions, and various values, and have various ends. For example, an economy can be based upon the following premises. People are radically autonomous agents who act as rational calculators in their own interests both naturally and as an expression of learned behavior. The purpose of economic activity is therefore to profit, primarily in terms of capital, or monetary wealth (which, in turn, increases autonomy and the range of calculations one can make). This order of exchange depends on competition, which hones our skills and defeats less efficient and productive rivals; thus strengthening the entire order towards greater efficiency and productivity. These are standard premises of the order of exchange conventionally known as capitalism. Note that morality is exogenous to this order.

Here are premises of an alternative order of exchange. Human beings are equal in the moral sense of a categorical commitment to such equality. What is unequal about us is most interesting, but what is equal about us is most important. The universality of moral claims and judgments that we find in Kant, in human rights theory, and in some theological moral systems, hold. What is morally acceptable for one is morally acceptable for all, what counts as moral failure for one counts as such failure for all. Thus, when persons and groups exchange goods and services, the basis of so doing is this equality. This means that competition takes place in the larger context, culture, structure, and politics of cooperation. Persons are not radically autonomous, but rather, our autonomy takes place in a larger context, culture, social reality, and politics of communality, or our interdependent natures.

Whereas achievement is a sacramental notion in the capitalist order of exchange; the notions of gift and sharing are foundational to the alternative order I am here outlining. Whereas scarcity is a premise and fear in the capitalist order; bounty and grace are premises of this alternative account. Whereas morality lies outside of economics in an intrinsic sense in capitalist economics; in this alternative account, morality is its very basis and core, its driving energy. Morality simply defines what is permissible, it defines the boundaries. Whereas in the capitalist order virtues such as equality, freedom, gracefulness, compassion, justice, peaceableness, love, and forgiveness have no intrinsic role, and are seen as personal options which individuals can incorporate into their economic lives as they wish; in the alternative account such virtues are the very mortar and brick we use to build the walls at the boundaries of acceptable and lawful economic behavior. Such virtues also ground and constitute the programmatic purposes, strategies, and policies of a just economy. Let us call this order of exchange a democratic order. It is democratic because it places the order of exchange in the service of the demos. That is, the people- all the people- get to decide what policies and laws, what expectations and premises, serve them, as a people, based upon the moral foundations I’ve mentioned. Equality being the foundation of all of it. Historically, this economic model has usually been called socialism, but because socialism is so egregiously misunderstood, and the word suffers from horrendous abuse, I suggest we use the word democracy. Many people have nicer feelings about democracy than they do about socialism, although they are, in the end, the same thing.

The democratic understanding of democracy is built on the premise that an order of exchange cannot be its own justification. An order of exchange is, after all, nothing but a tool or a set of tools. A hammer can be used to build a much needed home, or it can be used as a murder weapon. Economic systems function in the same way. They can be built to help, to cooperate, to serve, to protect and promote humanity, and human values and ends; or they can be built to murder. Markets are tools, they can serve some moral functions as long as they are controlled and regulated and used with care, guided by moral concerns; or they can be used to kill.

The market without moral values to guide and control it, or more broadly, capitalism, does not simply allow poverty, harm, and death to occur. Such a claim is, in fact, uninteresting in that capitalist advocates themselves would acknowledge that capitalism has no proper reason to, or purpose in, diminishing poverty, harm, or death. Capitalism does not simply allow human diminishment, disenfranchisement, and death. More importantly, capitalism kills. And it does so by design. Poverty is systematically produced by capitalism. (1) Capitalism thrills in the new markets that are concomitant to the proliferation of arms sales. Capitalism glories in the marketing of needless products that divert precious resources away from needed goods. Capitalism calls for political obstacles to full employment. The day AT&T laid off 40,000 employees, their stock skyrocketed. Karl Polanyi quotes William Townsend’s Dissertation on the Poor Laws by A Well-Wisher of Mankind, “Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most perverse. In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad [the poor] on to labor…Legal constraint [to work] is attended with much trouble…whereas hunger is not only peaceable, silent, unremitting pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry and labor, it calls forth the most powerful exertions…and lays lasting and sure foundations for good will and gratitude.” (2)

This 1786 document states bluntly the ethos of capitalism in our own times. Indeed, it is almost certainly the case that Townsend’s views were more scandalous in the eighteenth century then the facts of the production of poverty and violence are now. If Naomi Klein is even half right in her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (3) to take but one example of research on this question, this is a conclusion hard to avoid. Capitalism is, perhaps more than any other one thing, an idolatry of ideology. It is an order of exchange only on the surface, but it is an ideology of radical autonomy and egoism independent of moral considerations, most deeply. Of course, this does not mean that capitalism does nothing well. One thing it is spectacular at doing is producing wealth, measured only as monetary amounts in the aggregate. But morally one does not care about the mere aggregation of wealth, one cares about the distribution of wealth and the ends to which it is put.

We use our language to disguise our conduct and its consequences, but our political economy in the U.S. and global political economy/global capitalism more broadly, produces poverty as a purposeful part of its strategy of moving resources from the poor to the rich. For example, we talk about “unemployment figures” and “mergers” and the “movement of global capital” instead of making people poor and hungry. We benefit from a global economy which produces poverty, and then we pat ourselves on the back when we go the Food and Care Coalition every once in a while and make sandwiches for the poor. Capitalism kills but the beneficiaries of capitalism pretend to want peace. We sometimes consider tinkering around at the edges of the system and do things like raise the minimum wage by a few cents; but refuse to face up the ideology that is our idolatry. We too, consider ourselves “well-wishers” of humankind, even while we perpetrate and justify and benefit from a capitalist order of exchange that kills.

The Salvadoran Archbishop, Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by a death squad supported by the U.S. government during the Reagan administration, said “It is the poor who tell us what the polis is.” (4) Our political economy, the politics that should control our economics, should be in service to the poor, the demos, and should be envisioned and controlled by the poor, the demos, and that would be the true test of a moral order of exchange and a moral politics. But everywhere the poor become poorer and the rich become richer. We continuously lie to ourselves that trickle-down economics works, but the evidence is overwhelming that it doesn’t. (Note that John McCain, our latest trickle-down advocate, is tied with his opponent in the polls.) There is more than one kind of hunger. There is the hunger produced by poverty, the hunger of the belly, the gut. But there is also the hunger for truth and justice, for fairness and peace; the hunger for knowledge and for change. And since we are in a university setting, it is appropriate to add the hunger for knowledge we can use to bring the change morality calls for.

I think the financial and economic news about Wall Street’s recent implosion is evidence of my claims here. But I also think those who embrace faith-based economics will express their doubt in my conclusion because for true believers, the only cure for the death caused by the “free market” is an ever-freer market.

Of course I’ve done little in these brief remarks but to note what most people in our planetary human history have recognized. I’ve not offered an argument, only pointed to the obvious. Surely everything I’ve said here is disappointing. I’ve said nothing new or even complicated. I’ve just repeated an observation and a moral sensibility obvious to most people in most times. In terms of global time and space, I’ve made an ordinary claim. If what I’ve said here is unwelcome, this is a warning of captivity to our dark place and dark times. Only people in world-historical dysfunction, in moral isolation, ethical corruption, and the blindness and soul-numbness that wealth and power brings are incapable of recognizing this. Who knew the obvious and ordinary could be so radical and challenging?


1 – See, for example, Thomas W. Pogge, “Eradicating Systemic Poverty: Brief for a Global Resources Dividend,” The Journal of Human Development 2:1 (2001), 59-77. Also in Thom Brooks, ed., The Global Justice Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 439-53).

2 – In The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 113. Cited in Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 254-55. See Hauerwas and Coles, 253-76.

3 – (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

4 – Quoted in Susan R. Holman, The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 107. Cited in Hauerwas and Coles, 229.

–Sarah Smith

Misrepresentation of Freethinkers

Individuals of the nonreligious segment of humanity, especially those of notoriety, often have their nonreligious stance questioned and misrepresented by the religious. It is a tactic of the religious to put forth the notion that someone is really religious at heart, by pulling some phrase or sentence out of context to try to give credence to the lie. Or perhaps they will say that someone professed their “faith” on their deathbed.

This misrepresentation has been the case for Albert Einstein. But the following piece written by Einstein (one of many regarding religion) is, I feel, pretty good at setting the record straight about what his views on religion really were.

–Bob Lane

“When I was a fairly precocious young man I became thoroughly impressed with the futility of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in the chase. The stomach might well be satisfied by such participation, but not man insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being.

Albert Einstein

“As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came–though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents–to a deep religiousness, which, however reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment–an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connection. It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.”

–Albert Einstein
Autobiographical Notes
Open Court Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 3-5

Religion = Tobacco?

Religion is a lot like tobacco, isn’t it? Some people can use it for most of their lives with no apparent ill effects. Others become seriously sick while refusing to acknowledge, or even staunchly defending, the cause of their disability. Some folks become so seriously addicted that they cannot imagine life without it. Some are able to keep it, and the effects of it, to themselves while others insist they have not only a God-given right to use it, but that their right supersedes the rights of others around them.

Perhaps it would be more correct to say that religion is in much the same position as smoking was about 40 or 50 years ago. Back then, it was considered polite to offer someone a cigarette, and blowing smoke in someone’s face wasn’t seen as anything very serious. Some people knew, or at least suspected that smoking was bad for humans, but most insisted that there was no compelling evidence. Of course, those who were the most addicted and those who stood to lose the most money were the most fanatical in both denying the harm of smoking and defending the “right” of smokers to light up wherever and whenever they wanted to.

The “Imagine No Religion” billboards that have gone up recently in Chambersburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are a bit like the first anti-smoking messages that appeared in the 1960’s. While non-smokers welcomed a positive message, the addicts and pushers were outraged that someone would have the unmitigated gall to suggest that the world might be a better place without cigarette smoke.

We need more messages advocating the positive benefits of kicking the habit of delusional thinking while embracing reality and rational thinking.

–Steve Neubauer
President, PA Nonbelievers
Pique, Newsletter of Secular Humanists of New York, Nov. ’08

President’s Message

As I write this president’s message, the national election is just a few days away. It has been a long election season and is one of the most important elections I can remember. I have been trying to avoid the campaign as much as possible. I have been avoiding it because I am sick and tired of the “politics of sleaze.” But during this campaign, avoiding the nastiness is about as easy as avoiding traffic on the freeway at rush hour.

I realize that there is criticism that can be aimed at both sides of this presidential election process, but the Republicans appear to be the real professionals at mudslinging. As I have mentioned to a few friends, I find it somewhat humorous and at the same time disgusting to read letters to the editor or to see some Republican whining about negative ads by liberals. This, coming from the party of Richard Nixon and his “dirty tricks,” the party of Watergate, of Lee Atwater and Carl Rove, of the Willie Horton commercial, of Iran Contra, of almost unparalleled deception used to send us to a bogus war in Iraq, of Rush Limbaugh, and the party of the swift boaters. I could go on and on, but doing so would turn this into a tome. It really drives me crazy, so that is why I try to avoid most of what you see in the mainstream media, where there is more crap than substance.

While I’m getting things off my chest, I would like to say something about the separation of church and state. As you know, as a nonprofit organization, we are restricted from endorsing a candidate in the election process. It is the law and I feel it is a proper law. It is the price our society puts on nonprofits such as our humanist chapter and tax-exempt religions. Why should I, for example, be allowed to endorse a candidate or a ballot issue using our chapter’s resources (speaking at our meetings, using our newsletter and web site, etc)? Who am I to speak for the entire membership of our organization?

But a number of religious groups are doing just that, endorsing candidates from the pulpit, in defiance of the law, and hoping that somehow the law will be changed or redefined to allow them to use their church resources for political purposes. One example is the LDS church’s involvement in California’s Proposition 8 contest. Here they are doing the same sort of thing, except they are more careful to do it in ways that skirt the law rather than in direct defiance of the law. The sad thing about this religious intolerance is the richness of diversity they are missing out on by pursuing this myopic viewpoint. The gay people I know and have known have been delightful people, who are friendly and loving and a joy to be around. They deserve all the same rights as every other citizen.

In any event this is an exciting time. As I write this, there are just three days before Election Day. I think I can speak for all of us that we are anxious for it to be over, and to soon know the results of this historic election.

On a final note, the November speaker, Danielle Endres, will be speaking about Nuclear Weapons. It should be quite interesting. Personally, I have some not very “liberal” views about nuclear weapons and I hope to engage in a spirited discussion after the presentation. I hope you can come and join us on November 13 at 7:30 p.m., and bring a friend.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU